On The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma: A Reply to Real Atheology

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In a previous post, I argued that the Euthypro Dilemma (ED) was a false dilemma against Divine Command Theory (DCT).

The ED I am concerned with can be summarized as saying:

Either

(1) God has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

I proposed a third option which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

Recently Real Atheology posted a reply on Facebook as follows:

First, I don’t think this is actually a genuine third option- it’s merely a modified second horn (that morality is independent of God). By admitting that God has reasons for not issuing certain commands, Choo is admitting that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. He is admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should, ought, or must not command us to perform those actions. If these reasons are sufficient to obligate God from not commanding certain actions, then they are sufficient to obligate us from not performing those same actions. What matters morally would still be independent of God. So all Choo does in his (3) is add a divine legislature and enforcer to the concept of wrongness. In fact, he only ever argues for his (3) by way of analogy to finite legislatures and the laws they enforce. He’s right to point out that morality constrains our legal system. Laws can be morally unjust after all. And laws can also incentivize people to conform to moral norms. A defender of a Euthyphro objection could concede all of this, but the point would still remain that reasons are what make it the case that some acts should not be willed either by human agents or divine agents. These reasons may not be sufficient for a divine legislature and enforcer, but that’s no objection, because reasons also aren’t sufficient for finite legislatures and enforcers. It can only constrain them. Finite legislatures and the demands of a divine commander are both constrained by the logical space of reasons (to borrow Wilfred Sellars term). What matters morally is part of the space of reasons and not the will of a being in the causal order. That is the lesson of the Euthyphro.

I’d recommend thinking of the Euthyphro dilemma differently. Either,

(a) Reasons are more fundamental than God’s will (and nature).

or

(b) God’s will (and nature) is more fundamental than reasons.

If (a) is true, then reasons constrain what God could will. His commands would not be arbitrary, because he could justify all of his commands with those more fundamental reasons. This would imply that morality is independent of God. If reasons are sufficient to obligate God not to issue certain commands, then those same reasons are sufficient to obligate us not to perform those same actions. Morality would be an autonomous (or self-directed) decision process.

But if (b) is true, then God’s will determines what reasons there are. There would be no justification for God’s commands on this view. They will always have to face a charge of arbitrariness, because there is no further reasons which justify God’s will. Morality would be about an unqualified claim on our obedience to divine commands. It would not be about reasons for action and autonomous decision-making.

Notice that adding a divine legislature and enforcer to (a) does not give us a genuine third option distinct from (a) and (b) either. It’s just something further added on. This is the difference between the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness and the command-implying sense of moral wrongness. If the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness is sufficient to constrain or obligate the command-implying sense of moral wrongness, then the command-implying sense of moral wrongness is superfluous. This is because the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness would also constrain and obligate what actions we should, ought, or must perform or not perform.

 

Reply:

First, I am in no way admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should not command us to perform those actions. To do so would be to say that God has moral obligations. As far as I can see, I have not stated this anywhere and this does not follow from anything I previously wrote. Given that most DCT proponents are motivated by the idea that obligations must come from an obligator, I think that most DCT proponents are committed to saying that God does not have moral obligations. If the opponent of DCT asserts that the facts of an act must constitute an obligation for God not to command it, then the opponent is just asserting that the major motivation for DCT is false. If so, the problem is with DCT’s motivation, not the ED.

Now, I do think that God, being loving, kind, good (and so forth), would not command certain actions. Take for example the act of torturing babies for fun. Given the badness of such an act, a loving God would not command it to be done. This claim differs from saying ‘given the badness of such an act, a loving God should not command it to be done.’

One might worry that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. Here are three short replies. First, some DCT proponents such as Robert Adams and William Lane Craig argue that God is the Good. If God’s commands are constrained by reasons based on goodness and God is the Good, then there is nothing independent of God which constrains God’s will after all. So this is not a problem for DCT proponents who hold such a theory of goodness. Second, even if one drops Adams’ theory of goodness, it is not true that something independent of God’s will can by itself constrain God’s will. Based on what I said last paragraph, what constrains God’s will is partly explained by God’s character and partly explained by the badness of the act. So part of what explains God’s will is His character, not solely the features of the act alone. Something independent of God only plays a partial role in constraining God’s will. Lastly, the notion of constraining needs to be explained in order to pose a problem. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act make it wrong for God to command the act, then I agree this would be problematic. But as I said above, the DCT proponent is not committed to this. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act determines what God would not command, then it is not clear why this is problematic. One might however think that if the features of an act determine God’s commands, and God’s commands determine our moral obligations, then it is the features of an act alone that is sufficient to determine our moral obligations. This however is wrong. If X because of Y, and Y because of Z, it does not follow that X solely because of Z. All that follows is that X because of Y and Z.  

To end off, I would again appeal to an analogy. Suppose that there is a political authority (be it a single person or a government) which is legitimate (justified by whatever theory of political authority you hold to). Now, one might hold political authority command theory (PACT) which states that if a legitimate political theory issues commands (or institutes laws) and has good reasons for those commands, then those commands would result in our legal obligations.

Now imagine one raises the ED against PACT:

Either

(1) The political authority has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) The political authority has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations.

The defender of PACT can well affirm a third option:

(3) The political authority has reasons for its commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations without its commands.

For example, the political authority may have good reasons to command people not to smoke in a certain area and to smoke in another area. This creates our legal obligation to smoke only at the designated areas. But independent of the political authority’s commanding, the good reasons alone are not sufficient to create such a legal obligation. Now also suppose, there are things that the political authority would not command as the authority is wise, loving, etc. With this, we have a close analogy to DCT. I take it that most would not think the ED is a good objection to PACT. As far as we think that the ED is not problematic for PACT, I think the same can be said for DCT. If any ED style objection is to be raised against DCT, then it should also be a good objection against PACT.

 

 

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VIII

We’re discussing Russ Shafer-Landau (SL), and his critique of theistic ethics. He started with the Euthyphro Dilemma, and then uses analogies to make his point better. He asks us to envision a referee at a sporting match. A good referee is good in virtue of following the rules of the game, rather than making up new rules willy-nilly. A good referee can cite reasons for his calls, and reasons that aren’t merely ad hoc, made up on the spot, lacking rationale.

He admits it may sound odd, or mildly blasphemous, to liken God to a sports referee, but he doesn’t think there’s much harm in it. “The Divine Command Theory has us picture a God who controls our game in its entirety, making up all the rules, perhaps continually, and having no need to cite any reasons on their behalf.” For what other reasons could there be? “If there are not moral rules or reasons prior to God’s commands, then there is nothing God could rely on to justify the divine commands. So any choice is arbitrary.” Had God chosen differently, “we’d be saddled with a morality that encourages torture, pederasty, perjury, and all sorts of other things we now recognize to be evil.”

Recall, though, that on a view like that of Adams’, God typically commands something that’s good. He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it, and the additional motivation for us that the command would provide is another, and those are just two examples. DCT makes an action right, not good, to the thinking of leading DCT’ists today. Presumably, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, God has compelling reason to issue the command, rendering an already good action morally obligatory. But this is not to say that he couldn’t have done otherwise, at least on some occasions. It’s plausible to many, including me, that at least some of God’s commands are contingent. Not all of them follow ineluctably with necessity from his nature; he retains, at least with respect to certain actions, to command them or not to command them. The goodness of the action isn’t affected, but rather whether it’s obligatory or not. Perhaps God might even speak to me personally, commanding me to perform an action, that otherwise wouldn’t be obligatory—like help a particular homeless person. It becomes my duty once he issues the command.

Another important point to remember here is that if we’re dealing with a God of perfect love, there are some things God simply would never command. They would be inconsistent with his character. To say God is essentially loving, for these words to retain their meaning, is to suggest that some actions—those that are irremediably hideous and treacherous, for example—are ruled out. The ascription of love and goodness to God has determinate content, ruling some things out. So though God may retain a measure of divine prerogative in issuing various commands, there are still some commands outside his character he would never command. In fact, it’s right to say he can’t, in the sense, to put it into the terms of modal logic, there’s no metaphysically possible world in which he does issue such a command. As the delimiter of possible worlds, on an Anselmian conception, there are likely worlds and states of affairs we can vaguely conceive of or imagine that nevertheless don’t constitute genuine possibilities.

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Now, when we say God is good, SL thinks the only sense we can make of such an ascription is that God follows the moral rules. But this is where the long tradition of analogical predication in the history of the Christian church may prove handy. When we say God is good, we’re not saying God is good in exactly the same sense that we attribute goodness to people. Human beings may be good to one degree or another, but God is, on a view like that of Adams’, goodness itself, the paradigm, the exemplar, the archetype of the good. Ultimate goodness is a person, not a set of principles. In fact, there’s something deeply intuitive about making persons the locus of goodness. States of affairs may be pleasant or unpleasant, but aren’t morally good or bad. People are. It makes sense to think of persons as the primary subjects of goodness, but no merely human person is perfectly good. God, though, almost by definition, is perfectly good. Whether we predicate perfect goodness of God or identify God with goodness, or both, God’s goodness is nonnegotiable on Anselmianism. But his goodness isn’t univocal with our own; ours is the imperfect wheel; his is the perfect circle. There’s relevant resemblance, but also infinite distance, as God is perfect and we are far from it.

So this isn’t equivocation, but analogical predication, with which we can still meaningfully, in a sort of analogically extended sense, ascribe goodness, indeed perfect goodness, to God. If A. C. Ewing was right—and I think he was—this is also consistent with God functioning at the foundation of ethics, for the source of the good is also most plausibly taken to be perfectly good. Obviously, though, all of this is a far cry from SL’s simplistic and minimally charitable analogies and caricatures.

SL anticipates that some will object and say God’s command of rape or torture is impossible. “A good God would never allow such a thing.” Right enough, SL replies. “But what does it mean to be good? If the Divine Command Theory is correct, then something is good just in case it is favored by God. But then look what happens: to say that God is good is just to say that God is favored by God.” That’s not very informative, and in fact wouldn’t preclude a self-loving being from issuing hideous commands.

True enough, except note that SL is offering a DCT account of goodness, having earlier confined it to rightness. This may not have been intentionally duplicitous; he may have just used rightness as a generic term for morality, a penumbral term under which falls both goodness and rightness. But for present purposes, the distinction is a crucial one. DCT nowadays is nearly always delimited to deontic matters, rightness rather than goodness. For extended accounts of how and why God is aptly thought of as good, see the work of Evans, Hare, Adams, etc.

SL is convinced he knows exactly from what an ascription of goodness to God must derive: “A good God, like a good referee, is one who plays by the rules. When we speak of God as morally good—indeed, as morally perfect—what we really mean is that God cannot fail to uphold and respect all moral rules.” SL seems to be operating on the assumption that a perfect God either is perfect in virtue of following all the moral rules or is a vacuous conception because it means he can change the moral rules at will. But surely those don’t exhaust the alternatives. Recall the earlier point that God indeed can’t change the moral rules at will; there are indeed constraints on his behavior if he’s perfect; it’s just that the constraints happen to be entirely internal to his character. They’re a feature of his perfection. A God who could commit suicide, deny himself, or lie would be imperfect. The constraints don’t threaten his omnipotence or sovereignty, but help reveal it. Recall that on an Anselmian picture God possesses all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree, which admit of intrinsic maxima.

SL is convinced the analogy is close between referees and games, on the one hand, and God and morality on the other. But I am not. SL’s insistence is on a God who is not the ultimate reality, but distinctly secondary. He refuses to acknowledge relevant disanalogies between human referees and the divine, and he thinks that constraints on God’s actions necessitate that morality doesn’t find its foundation or locus in God. He does much of this by illegitimately assuming the only theistic ethic on offer is a radically voluntarist version of DCT, and he ignores the illuminating good/right distinction in the process.

Again, he argues that if the moral character of torture is fixed prior to God’s reaction to it, then God is not the author of the moral law. But the moral character of an action is not just based on divine commands. Its goodness or badness traces to a different foundation (on Adams’ view, and that of most DCT’ists). The action may already have lots of moral features to it besides being obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. Its moral hideousness, for example, might already obtain. And God’s command against an action in certain cases, I’ve argued, isn’t contingent, but necessary, meaning such commands couldn’t have been otherwise. This actually makes good sense of necessary moral truths even in deontic matters—and a better explanation of them, to my thinking, than what (nontheistic) nonnaturalists can offer. This resonates nicely with Plantinga’s suggestion in “How to be an Anti-Realist” that the necessary truths can offer an insight into God’s unchanging character.

In the next blog, at long last, I’ll wrap up my response to this chapter of SL’s.

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VII

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

SL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” (Part 1)

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls focus on deontic moral concepts, which include moral permissibility, moral obligation, and moral forbiddenness. Such are also expressed as moral duties (right/wrong). First, they point out that moral obligations are not identical to feelings of obligation. The feelings of obligation are neither necessary nor sufficient for moral obligations. One might have a moral obligation to do X without feeling so. One could also feel obligated to do X without actually having a moral obligation to do X. Hence explaining one's feeling of moral obligations is not sufficient to explain moral obligations themselves.

Baggett and Walls start by visiting a few ways of understanding the nature of moral obligations. Scott M. James lists these truths about moral judgments: (1) Moral creatures understand prohibitions; (2) moral prohibitions appear independent of human desires and (3) human conventions; (4) moral judgments are tightly linked to motivation; (5) moral judgments imply notions of dessert (punishment is justified); (6) moral creatures experience a distinctive affective response to our own wrongdoing, and this response often prompts us to make amends for the wrongdoing.

Robert Adams identifies two features responsible for guilt. The first is based on the harm caused to, and the second is alienation from, people. He regards obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt consists in alienation from those who have required of us what we did not do. Adams of course does not think that every social bond results in obligations, only a morally good one. How good the demand is, who the demander is, and the consequences of the demand all plays a role.

C. Stephen Evans similarly lists four features of moral obligations: (1) A judgment about a moral obligation is a kind of verdict on my action; (2) a moral obligation brings reflection to closure; (3) a moral obligation involves accountability or responsibility; and (4) a moral obligation holds for persons simply as persons.

In sum, moral duties are not mere suggestions, or merely prescriptions there are excellent reasons to fulfill. Moral obligations possess authority (which gives us decisive reasons for action) and are inescapable (applying to persons with few exceptions). Moral laws are what we must do, not in the sense of the causal must (like the physical laws), but of the moral must. Violating moral duties also results in an experience of guilt (rather than shame or degradation).

Now Baggett and Walls move to various accounts that attempt to explain moral obligations. First is the functionalist approach advanced by primatologist Frans de Waal. De Waal argues that social primates have tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversion to inequality. He thinks that the weight of morality comes not from above but from inside of us. So he thinks that morality has its origin in evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, altruism, and empathy with other primates is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things.

The problem is that when it comes to accounting for moral obligations, de Waal either (1) eschews their importance, by arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations. Regarding the first strategy, while he may be right to say that moral motivation should come from higher moral impulses (as most virtue theorists would agree), he still needs to explain the existence of moral obligations themselves. The second strategy also does nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves, only a feeling of obligation.

What he calls "morality" isn't moral truths; rather, they are moral beliefs, feelings, and practices at most. He has fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated. Even moral skeptics can affirm what he has said. In fact many moral skeptics argue that since naturalistic evolution can explain why we have moral beliefs, without any reference to their truth, there is no reason to affirm moral realism. Furthermore, others like E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse have argued based on a naturalistic evolutionary account that if humans had evolved differently, we could have quite different ethical beliefs. Hence this leaves morality redundant.

Another evolutionary account comes from Philip Kitcher, who offers a naturalized virtue ethic. On his view, evolution gave us certain capacities to empathize with others. These faculties are limited and morality has for its function to extend such empathy. What we morally ought to do follows from the traits we ought to develop, which depends on the sorts of creatures that we are. Rather than explaining moral obligations, however, Kitcher explains them away. On his account, it is a good idea to follow certain rules, and to coerce the unwilling to follow them, in order to maintain functional harmony. This is merely prudential and far from moral obligations.

Scott M. James offers yet another evolutionary account. He takes on a response-dependency view, allowing him to affirm that moral facts are real, though mind-dependent. He thinks that this can be done in a way that makes moral facts objective. He adopts a tracking account that says our minds evolved in the way they did because they were tracking moral facts. His proposal has two parts. The first part talks about how we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior. He thinks the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. He claims that we first evolved a disposition to consider how others would likely react to our behavior. This allowed cooperation. However, keeping track of the responses of others would be a challenge. The solution is to ask this hypothetical question: if your counterpart were only seeking principles that all could agree to live by, would he have any reason to condemn your behavior? Over time, we became only concerned with the evaluations of a hypothetical observer. By the time modern humans evolved, we had moral minds that place special weight on how others would respond to proposed courses of action. Second, many primate societies and extant hunter-gather tribes have a strong tendency towards egalitarianism (the view that supports equality). Third, certain studies suggest that the earliest (recognizably) moral communities exemplify the social contract tradition of morality. Finally, there is cross-cultural evidence of this.

In the second part, he lays out a metaethical story about what moral judgments are and about what makes them true. On his view, an action is wrong just in case others (who have an interest in general rules governing behavior) would tend to object to that action.

Baggett and Walls have a few worries. First is a Euthyphro dilemma problem. Is an action right because hypothetical observers say so, or do hypothetical observers say so because it is right? Baggett and Walls are skeptical that what hypothetical observers say becomes true because they say it. Rather, hypothetical observers would say it because it is true. Second, some empirical evidence that James cites underdetermine the answer to what is at question here. Even if something that externally looks like a social contract is empirically verified in the earliest moral communities, the question of what makes something right/wrong has still not been answered. The social contract can be based on a shared recognition of objectively true moral principles (independent of the social contract). Lastly, this still does not account for the strong sense of moral obligations which includes, guilt for violation, its binding authority, and the like.

The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma

In general, Divine Command Theory (DCT) says that “If God commands X, then X is a moral obligation for us.” I will limit my discussion of DCT to moral obligations and prohibitions, which are used synonymously with rightness and wrongness. These are deontic properties which is distinct from goodness, which is axiological. For example, something can be good to do, such as becoming a lifeguard to save lives, but we do not have a moral obligation to do so. So I will use DCT as a theory of rightness that presupposes a theory of the good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) is often raised against DCT. For example, in the case of rape Walter Sinnott-Armstrong asks, “Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.” In short, the ED says:

Either

(1) God has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

Embracing (1) leads to objections such as God’s commands being arbitrary which makes morality arbitrary. Furthermore, this means that God’s commands could possibly be what we consider abhorrent, such as commanding that we ought to torture babies solely for fun resulting in a moral obligation to do so. Any objection to this that says God has reasons is a move away from (1).

Embracing (2), shows that actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, making God at most an epistemic authority who is just conveying His perfect moral knowledge to us. However DCT proponents want God’s commands to explain moral obligations instead.

From the ED, I think a third option is clear, which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

God just needs good reasons to make an act morally obligatory. An act itself does not have the property of being morally obligatory prior to God’s command, but can have other relevant properties, such as being morally good or even “non-moral considerations ultimately based in God’s nature.” God’s commanding however adds certain properties that make the act obligatory. To use an analogy, let us think of other obligations. Consider a legal obligation not to smoke in a certain area when implemented by law. For the obligation to arise, there must be good reasons behind why it is implemented by law. Yet those reasons by themselves are not sufficient to give us legal obligations unless it is actually implemented by law. Hence a legal obligation arises because it is implemented by the law and there are good reasons for it being implemented. Likewise, DCT proponents say that a moral obligation arises because it is commanded by God and God has good reasons to command it.

One objection to (3) is based on a principle that moral properties strongly supervene on non-moral properties necessarily. Matthew Jordan says, “The doctrine of global moral supervenience, the uncontroversial thesis that any two possible worlds that are identical in all non-moral respects must be identical in all moral respects, implies that moral truths – at least the most fundamental ones – are metaphysically necessary.” So moral obligations are in some way determined and fixed by their non-moral properties. How exactly does moral supervenience amount to an objection to (3) exactly?

In “An Essay on Divine Authority”, Mark C. Murphy argues that DCT “must be false, for it, in conjunction with a very weak and plausible claim about God's freedom in commanding, entails that the moral does not supervene on the non-moral.” To show this, he argues that according to voluntaristic versions of DCT, where God is free to choose what to command, there can be two possible worlds exactly the same in their natural features, but God gives different commands and thus we have different moral obligations in two possible worlds that have the same natural features. This seems to violate the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral, since two worlds with the same natural features should have the same moral obligations.

How may a proponent of a voluntaristic version of DCT reply? C. Stephen Evans points out that for the theist, non-moral properties can include both natural and supernatural properties. Supernatural properties are “properties possessed because what has the properties has a certain kind of relation to God,” such as “being commanded by God”, “being preferred by God,” or “being pleasing to God” or “being conducive to a better relation to God.” If an act is commanded by God, then it will have the further properties mentioned, such as “being conducive to a better relation to God” which is a non-moral property. These non-moral properties may even be linked to natural properties such as “being conducive to the agent’s happiness.” If a relationship with God is conducive to our happiness, and such a relationship requires that we follow what He commands, then the property of “being commanded by God” would be one that could alter the moral status of an act, especially for those who think that the moral status of an act is linked to whether the act is conducive to an agent’s happiness. Hence on DCT, it is both natural and supernatural properties that make up non-moral properties which moral properties supervene on. If so, then there can be two worlds alike in all their natural properties but differ in their supernatural properties, and hence moral properties can be different as it supervenes on both. So moral supervenience along with God’s freedom does not amount to an objection against (3).

 

Bibliography Evans, C. Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jordan, Matthew Carey. "“Theism, Naturalism, and Meta-Ethics”." Philosophy Compass 8, 2013, 373-380.

Miller, Christian B. “Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Murphy, Mark C. An Essay on Divine Authority. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality”, in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, edited by Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King, 101-115. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

By Norto Mendez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31962968

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part II

 

BIBLICAL ETHICS SUCCEEDS WHERE KANT FALLS SHORT

In comparing the three proposed biblical principles of ethics with Kantian ethics, it is evident that both Kant and the biblical principles attempt to achieve many of the same objectives despite having different foundations to ground morality. Kant’s ethic, however, proves to be less plausible when his justification for objective morality, his requirements for moral worth, and his argument that humans possess inherent value are compared with a biblical view of ethics.

Kant departs from the first biblical principle by grounding objective morality in the “good will” that is produced by reason in every rational creature. In accord with the Enlightenment ideals of human autonomy and reason, humans can legislate morality apart from God. Assessing the philosophical merit of Kantian ethics versus the biblical ethic on this point deserves careful attention because both views stand or fall with the ability that their intrinsic “good” has to ground objective morality.

The classic problem that confronts any moral system that claims some absolute standard as the ground of objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. This dilemma, which goes back to the time of Plato, questions whether God’s commands could really determine what is good (or “pious”). The dilemma is stated: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”[1]

Both horns of the dilemma are a challenge to any proposed absolute standard of goodness. For any purported standard of objective morality, one can ask whether that standard merely recognizes goodness (i.e., goodness is external to the standard) or whether that standard determines goodness arbitrarily. Consider first whether the biblical ethic is able to defend that the Christian God is plausibly the ground of objective morality in the face of this challenge. It will not do for objective morality to be arbitrary (if good is merely what God says), and God cannot ground objective morality if there is a standard of morality outside of God (if God simply affirms what is independently good). Fortunately for biblical ethics, there is a third alternative—God Himself is the “Good.” The third alternative is that “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value.”[2] So God is the Good. God’s will and essentially holy nature are fused such that God only wills that which consistently flows from His nature. God is not an arbitrary “stopping point” for morality’s foundation, as there are “principled reasons to think that God’s existence is necessary and that God functions as the very ground of being.” If God is the “primordial good of unsurpassable value,” then goodness is anchored in an unchanging, personal, and necessarily perfect source.[3] It is reasonable that the ground of objective morality would have these properties; morality seems to be essentially bound up with personhood, and anything that would ground objective morality would have to be unchanging and beyond human opinion.

Although the biblical grounding of objective morality in God’s holy nature appears to survive the Euthyphro dilemma, Kant’s “good will” does not fare as well. Kant may seem to split the horns of the dilemma by claiming that the good will is intrinsically and necessarily good. The problem, however, is that there is no reason why the good will must be good “without qualification” in the way Kant says it is. Louis Pojman raises the problem that the good will itself—the rational faculty that recognizes the CI as the supreme moral principle—could potentially be “put to bad uses.” Although the good will seems to be a good, Pojman insightfully recognizes that it is “not obvious” that the good will is necessarily good or that it is “the only inherently good thing” since a “misguided do-gooder” could act in accordance with what he believes is good and yet carry out what most of us regard as bad actions. Perhaps the good will is a “necessary condition to any morally good action,” but it does not seem to be sufficient.[4]

Ultimately, for Kant, the good will is intimately tied to the principle that it produces—the CI and its requirement of universalizability. The problem is that universalizability is unable to stand as the ultimate moral criterion. For one thing, Kant does not adequately specify parameters for the characteristics of a maxim that is appropriate to universalize as moral law. Aside from the limitation that a maxim must not violate the Principle of Ends, Kant “provides no guide for determining what features must be included in the maxim.” This leaves open the door for morally problematic actions “to be based on a maxim that a person would universalize.”[5] Also, it is highly dubious that reason necessarily produces the same conclusions in all rational beings. For example, one could justifiably will to universalize the maxim that “one should always tell the truth no matter what consequence might come about as a result.” Indeed, Kant believed that reason demands the acceptance of this maxim. Yet many would argue that reason demands the acceptance of the maxim that “one should tell the truth unless doing so would harm others.” It is unclear which maxim is necessitated by reason, and both positions have defenders. This example also highlights the difficulty the CI has in handling moral conflicts.[6]

If, however, God’s unchanging and necessarily good character is the intrinsic “Good,” then there is no concern about disagreements among rational human persons as to what should be universalized—that is, what is good. Only God, out of His necessarily holy nature, stands as the ontological ground of goodness, and conflicting human beliefs are irrelevant to the existence of objective morality. With biblical ethics, the existence of moral values and duties (moral ontology) does not depend upon the conclusions we reach as we try to know what these moral values and duties are (moral epistemology). What happens when two maxims that appear to be legitimately justifiable according to our best human reason disagree with each other? If objective morality is rooted in God, then such a situation is irrelevant to moral ontology.

In addition to providing a better foundation for objective moral values, having a biblical ground of ethics can adequately justify moral duties while the Kantian ground of ethics cannot. Since biblical ethics grounds objective morality in God, God’s commands are justifiably our moral duties because they are derived from His essentially holy nature.[7] Biblical ethics is able to sustain itself as a truly deontological ethical system. On the other hand, although Kant would deny it, significant voices have charged that Kant’s good will is unable to produce true moral duties without appealing to a more subjective consequentialist justification for them. The famous utilitarian ethicist John Stuart Mill, for example, claims that the CI does not avoid seemingly “immoral” actions on purely logical grounds; rather, he says Kant merely shows “that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”[8] Mill has a valid point. Some seemingly immoral maxims do not lead to any obvious contradiction if universalized, though we can see that the consequences of universalizing it would be morally bad and may produce a negative result. For example, consider the maxim that “two consenting adults who are not already in a committed relationship should always have sex with each other if they desire to do so.” The universal acceptance of this maxim would not in any way lead to a logical contradiction that would undermine the very practice of the maxim, and it is not obvious that the Principle of Ends is being violated since both individuals are consenting and may well have a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the other person; however, one can reasonably will that this maxim should not be universalized because of the consequences it would have. Such promiscuity is known to carry a heavy emotional weight for those who engage in it, and it also raises the likelihood of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Such behavior also makes it more difficult to form meaningful committed relationships, which one can reasonably argue have significant value. In fact, there are actually “Kantian consequentialists,” such as R. M. Hare[9] and David Cummiskey. Cummiskey argues that Kant’s ethical system “is consistent with and supports a consequentialist normative principle” even though Kant sought a fully deontological ethic.[10] If that is the case, then it is hard to see how Kant’s good will allows for objective moral duties; however, because God Himself is the necessary “Good” and His nature produces moral truth that is essential and binding upon us, moral duties transcend humans, and their existence does not depend upon our own assessment of what actions will probably produce “good” consequences. It is not clear that Kant’s CI is able to account for the full range of objective duties that are binding on us and that it can do this without recourse to subjective human considerations of consequences.

Moreover, the authority and bindingness of moral duties seems to be much stronger and more plausible if the source of these duties is a person rather than something impersonal, such as “reason.” Merely “acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Moral obligation carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.”[11] When we fall short of our moral duties, we sense that we are guilty in a sense that goes beyond simply violating a principle of reason. Locating the source of moral authority in an essentially holy personal God better explains the objective guilt that seems to accompany violating one’s moral duty. In view of all these considerations, the biblical ethical principle that the standard and basis of all goodness is found in God is quite plausible, and this fact is highlighted by the apparent problems that Kant’s system has in establishing the good will as the one intrinsic good that grounds objective morality.

Moving to the second principle of biblical ethics, Kant’s insight in agreeing with the biblical principle that moral worth depends on our motives as well as our actions has been noted; however, Kant’s view of moral worth proves to be too narrow when compared to the biblical assessment of moral worth. As Joseph Kotva points out, Kantian ethics and all ethical theories that are based strictly upon “rules or duty” are at a disadvantage in accounting for the biblical recognition that the moral life is more than rules. Kant fails to see that life is a “race” that requires ongoing character development. While Scripture goes beyond virtue ethics, it captures its insights. We are constantly to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” as we model ourselves after Jesus (Heb 12:1-2). Paul emphasizes the need to develop such virtues as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), and he exhorts others to grow in character by following his example as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). While Christian ethics certainly has a strong deontological component, Kotva rightly points out the biblical emphasis on developing virtues and constantly struggling for moral growth in order to become a person of greater character.[12]

The key shortfall of Kant’s view of moral worth is that he does not credit moral worth to a person who grows in character such that she no longer does an action out of rational duty but out of modified and improved inclination. We have seen that Kant is clear that there can be no moral worth involved when an agent is “so sympathetically constituted” that she performs kind acts out of the pure joy of doing them rather than a sense of duty.[13] While biblical ethics would applaud someone of such character who enjoys doing virtuous things, Kant does not recognize such a person as morally praiseworthy. He thus fails to capture the value of moral growth and the fact that one should strive both to “will and act” according to what is good (Phil 2:13). While feeling joy from doing what is good should not be our sole moral motivation, “normal healthy human considerations of self-interest are a perfectly legitimate part of moral motivation.”[14]

Therefore, although Kant is certainly right that duties such as the command to love others should be done regardless of inclination, loving others is something that we ought to work towards wanting to do so that the duty does not have to be against inclination. Finding joy in doing what is good is a mark of moral development and personal character, and the Bible more completely captures this. Such character is exemplified in Jesus, who, though He dreaded it, even found joy in sacrificing Himself on the cross for others (Heb 12:2).

Finally, Kant’s ethic falls short of the third biblical ethical principle in terms of justifying the idea that humans possess value. We have seen that Kant attempts to ground the intrinsic value of humanity in our rationality. Kant argues that pure reason forces us to the conclusion that humans must have value because nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing. In contrast, biblical ethics holds that humans have value in virtue of being made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). Human value is based on “the relationship for which we were created” rather than because of any “distinguishing characteristic” that is found in human capabilities.[15] This is attractive; for if human value is rooted in a capacity like reason or rationality, then how can the value of babies or the brain damaged be upheld?[16] The reason that the biblical justification for the value of humans is superior to Kant’s follows from the earlier point that God is a far more credible “stopping point” for objective morality than the good will.

If God truly is the ultimate “Good,” then perhaps human rationality is an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good. Rather than agreeing with Kant that the “rational nature” of humans is itself sufficient for regarding humans as “ends in themselves,”[17] it may be that rationality functions as an instrumental good in so far as it allows us to have a relationship with the one true source of ultimate value—God Himself. If that is the case, then Kant is correct in valuing rationality but wrong in thinking that it has intrinsic value.

Beyond the automatic implications that locating objective morality in God has for human value, careful consideration of the question of human value by itself reveals that humans, if they are to justify having truly objective value, must justify their value by appealing to something outside of themselves. If humans consider themselves intrinsically valuable merely because they value themselves, then how can David Hume’s is-ought problem be avoided? Just because it is the case that humans tend to ascribe value to their own lives and the lives of other people does not mean that we necessarily ought to do so.

Finally, there is a sort of argument from contingency that points to God as the proper justification for human value and dignity. Kant and many others have claimed that we are the sort of beings who have intrinsic value.[18] But even if Kant were right that our rationality provides a basis for intrinsic human value, this would not negate the fact that God is necessary for us to have value because “relationality and intrinsicality are neither at odds nor mutually exclusive.”[19] If there is no possible world in which beings like us could exist apart from God, then there is no reason in principle why our value could not come from both our relationship to God as well the intrinsic qualities God has given us. Paul Copan argues that morality and value are “necessarily connected” with personhood. Since an essential attribute of God is that He exists necessarily and is the ontological ground of all other persons, morality and value would be impossible without God.[20] Using this logic, it is plausible that the source of intrinsic value can only be found in a necessarily existing person. Thus, in response to Kant’s view that the mere possession of rationality endows all rational creatures with intrinsic value, one must ask on what basis humans persons exist to have rationality. God, if He does exist as Kant himself believed, is the only reason that there is rationality. Even if it were true, as Kant claims, that rationality brings about value, God is the source of rationality. Ultimately, in view of these considerations, the biblical justification for human value appears more plausible and legitimate than Kant’s justification.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The three biblical principles of ethics proposed in this paper appear to be eminently plausible when held up to philosophical scrutiny. Because Kant, without grounding morality in God, sought to achieve many of the same goals that these biblical principles accomplish, Kantian ethics serves as an instructive litmus test of the plausibility of biblical ethics. Morality must be objective and universal if it is to avoid the total collapse that relativism ensures. Kant is undoubtedly correct in recognizing this. Furthermore, we have seen that objective morality—to be truly objective—must have a plausible absolute standard of intrinsic value and goodness that grounds it. Biblical ethics provides a philosophically justifiable basis for accomplishing this by identifying God as that source. In contrast, Kant is unable to legitimize the “good will” as being “good without qualification” and able to produce moral principles and binding duties that are defensibly objective and have an ontological basis that is fully independent of humanity. Biblical ethics also legitimizes the attractive conviction that humans really do have intrinsic value. Kant is right to recognize the truth that humans are “objects of respect” and should be “treated as ends,” but he is unable to objectively ground this apparent truth in a justifiable source. God Himself is the ultimate standard of goodness and value, and it is only by way of our relationship with God that we, as creatures made in God’s image, can have intimate connection to the ultimate source of value and can ourselves be endowed with objective value.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sources Cited:

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

Copan, Paul.  “A Moral Argument.”  In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview.  Edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Craig, William Lane.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.  3rd ed.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Cummiskey, David.  Kantian Consequentialism.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Driver, Julia.  Ethics: The Fundamentals.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Gert, Bernard.  Morality: Its Nature and Justification.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Grenz, Stanley.  The Moral Quest.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Hare, John E.  The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication.  2nd ed.  Translated by F. Max Müller.  London: Macmillan, 1907.

--------.  Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

--------.  “What is Enlightenment?”  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Kotva, Joseph J.  The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S.  Mere Christianity.  San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001.

Mill, John Stuart.  Utilitarianism.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906.

Moreland, J. P., and William Lane Craig.  Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003.

Plato.  “Euthyphro.”  In The Trial and Death of Socrates.  3rd ed.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

--------.  Plato’s Republic.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

Pojman, Louis.  Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong.  6th ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Porter, Burton Frederick.  The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics.  3rd ed.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Smith, R. Scott.  In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Tiffany, Evan.  “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?”  Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 524-546.

Wielenberg, Erik.  Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Additional Sources:

Craig, William Lane.  “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality.”  Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5175 (accessed February 12, 2016).

Kant, Immanuel.  “Critique of Practical Reason.”  In Great Books of the Western World.  Vol. 42.  Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.  Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

McElreath, Scott.  “The Inadequacy of Kant’s View of Moral Worth.”  Philosophical Writings, 19-20 (Spring/Summer 2002): 23-42.

Ritchie, Angus.  From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of Our Ethical Commitments.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

 

Notes:

  1. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 11.

  1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 491.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.

  1. Pojman, Discovering Right and Wrong, 127.

  1. Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 306.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 167.

  1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 182.

  1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 5.

  2. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap, 18-19. Hare notes that R. M. Hare is a Kantian who believes he is consistent with Kant in applying act-utilitarianism to Kant’s CI to determine whether an act should be universalized.

  1. David Cummiskey, Kantian Consequentialism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 176. This quote is in the context of showing a limitation of Erik Wielenberg’s secular approach to ethics, but this particular criticism applies to Kantian ethics as well.

  2. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 156.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 14. Kant believed happiness must result from moral living for us to press on in the moral life, but our motivation to be moral must be duty and not happiness. See Hare, The Moral Gap, 76-78.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 266.

  1. Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 217.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 117.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 46.

  1. Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83-84. Wielenberg, a secular moral realist, contends that rooting human value in God devalues the intrinsic human value that common sense tells us we have.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.

  1. Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument,” in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 113.

Chapter 4, Part I, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the first three objections discussed; following posts in the series will cover the last four objections.

The Euthyphro Problem

From an early Socratic dialogue the question came, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Either way we seem to have a problem: either the gods are arbitrary or holiness is independent of the gods. We can extend the dilemma to morality and ask if God approves what’s moral because it’s moral or if something is moral because God approves it. If the latter, this leads to two undesirable results: it looks as if things like hatred and cruelty would be good if God approved of them, and it looks as if it will be impossible meaningfully to praise God as good, since goodness is whatever God says it is.

Evans thinks the Dilemma poses a problem for a universal voluntaristic ethical theory that tries to base all ethical properties in God’s commands or will, but not his theory that delimits DCT to moral duties based on some theory of the good, in his case a natural law conception. For then God’s commands aren’t arbitrary, and God can be rightly praised for his goodness.

Since Evans opts for the divine discretion thesis, he thinks God has some latitude in the commands he issues. Does this reintroduce arbitrariness? Evans doesn’t think so, since the commands would provide a special test of devotion to God, and perhaps be especially conducive to practices that would nourish such devotion.

Evans concludes that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for a DCT of his type.

The Horrible Acts Objection

Another objection is that DCT violates deep moral intuitions about what’s morally right. If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so, for example. The standard response to this charge is that God is necessarily good. It follows from this that God could not possibly give commands to do what is morally horrible because of the intrinsic badness of such acts. Louise Antony is mistaken in claiming that this move abandons DCT.

Recently some critics have extended the argument by saying that if, counterfactually, God were to issue such horrible commands (even if he never actually would or could), DCT would entail our obligation to engage in such horrible acts. Such critics provide no logical semantical theory to explain and justify these claims, but rather seem to rely on intuitions. But Evans plays along and says there’s no problem here, because (following Pruss on this score) such an argument would apply to any and every moral theory. For example, if the categorical imperative required us to torture innocents, it would be morally obligatory to torture innocents (on that theory). Someone might say the categorical imperative never would or could require us to do any such thing, but of course the DCT’ist says the same of DCT. Perhaps in fact the impossibility of God making such a command would be even more intuitively obvious than the impossibility of deriving an obligation to torture innocents from the categorical imperative.

The Autonomy Objection

Other critics object that a DCT of moral obligations is objectionable because it undermines the autonomy of humans as moral agents, and they believe that such autonomy is essential to morality. In one form, the charge is that morality, to be recognized as morality at all, must be based on reasons or arguments that humans can recognize for themselves. James Rachels argues this. For him DCT doesn’t even qualify as a moral theory. Other critics admit DCT is a moral theory, but argue it’s a bad one, because it infantilizes humans, conceiving of us as childlike creatures incapable of deciding important matters for ourselves, needing to be told what to do.

Let’s start with the claim that DCT does not even count as a moral theory because a genuine moral theory must ground morality in principles and/or arguments that an agent can recognize as true and/or sound for herself. Evans’ first point is that his DCT does not have to recognize a moral obligation as a divine command in order to have knowledge or at least justified belief that he or she has the obligation. Such people recognize their moral obligations, presumably in the same ways as other people, and it is hard to see how the fact that those obligations are really divine commands could undermine their autonomy, since they are ignorant of that fact.

So Rachels’ argument must be intended to show that it is coming to believe that one’s moral obligations are divine commands that undermines authority. But why should this follow? If one supposes that an individual has come to accept a DCT on the basis of a philosophical argument, then it is hard to see how this could undermine the moral agent’s autonomy. Rachels’ requirement that the individual form moral beliefs on the basis of reason and/or arguments that the individual has considered for herself would seem to be met.

Maybe Rachels or someone else could push the point by insisting that following the dictates of another person would not count as following moral principles at all. But sometimes following the dictates of human persons does result in moral obligations (think of an air raid warden during wartime). In God’s case, Evans has argued that he has genuine moral authority which enables his commands to create moral obligations. This is perfectly consistent with autonomy in Rachels’ sense.

Now consider the second version of the autonomy objection, which does not claim that divine commands are incompatible with the kind of autonomy a moral agent must have, but rather that following divine commands would be a kind of childish version of morality. Evans admits that even if God gives us commands, by giving us freedom to obey or disobey his commands he treats us as moral beings who have the opportunity freely to follow his principles.

Beyond that, though, Evans thinks it’s easy to show that God does not necessarily infantilize humans by giving them commands as to how they should live. Whether something like that is true would depend on the nature of the commands God gives. Perhaps if God gave humans detailed instructions on a minute by minute basis for every detail of their lives then this criticism would have weight. For in that case human persons would not need to use their rational faculties or develop them in order to know how to live. The task would simply be to listen to God’s continuing instructions and follow them. But if we assume that God does not give such commands, but rather gives humans commands that are at least somewhat general in nature, this would not follow. God’s commands need to be interpreted and applied, and their implications thought through. God might well decide to give commands of just this nature so as to require humans to develop the capacities he has given them.

 

 

Summary of Chapter Two of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

In the second chapter of Keith Loftin’s God and Morality: Four Views, philosopher Michael Ruse presents a case for what he calls naturalist moral nonrealism. This is a metaethical view that combines atheism with a form of moral subjectivism. On this view, all facts are natural facts, there is no supernatural reality, and moral principles depend on what people believe.

Ruse first argues that there are connections between natural selection and altruism. Our brains are subject to genetically determined rules. Related to this, we are social beings who must get along with one another in order to survive. As Ruse puts it,

“What evolutionary biologists believe, therefore, is that nature has given our brains certain genetically determined, strategic rules or directives, which we bring into play when dealing with new awkward situations. Rather like a self-correcting machine…we humans can adjust and go in different directions when faced with obstacles to our well-being. The rules are fixed, but how we use the rules is not” (p. 60).

This leads to a discussion of the origin of morality. Some of the rules that we’ve inherited from our ancestors are moral rules. We take them to be moral norms. For example, the belief that we ought to help one another is such a rule, and is genetically determined. Substantive moral beliefs, then, are adaptations. Non-human animals have similar adaptations, insofar as they exhibit altruistic behavior related to kin selection. An animal’s relatives share the same genes. Given this, altruism serves as reproduction by proxy. There is also “reciprocal altruism,” where help is given in expectation that it will be returned.  And these mechanisms are also at work in humans.

Ruse, then, is an advocate of evolutionary ethics, but rejects the traditional view that includes belief in the progressive nature of evolution. He accepts ethical skepticism, which is the view that there is no justification for our moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely “psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness” (p. 65). He contends that this follows from his views about evolution. We could have evolved a very different set of moral beliefs, and for him this is a challenge to those who argue for objective morality.

The upshot is that morality can be explained, but it cannot be justified. Yet morality is such a strong impulse in human beings, and is very difficult to ignore. We think that morality has an objective basis because this is evolutionarily advantageous, but it is still not true. It seems to be objective, but it simply is not. Interestingly, Ruse states that like Hume, he will forget about his skepticism when he goes back into the real world.

Ruse also argues that Christians must be careful when appealing to God as a justification for their metaethical views, because of the well-known Euthyphro problem. He does discuss a natural law reply to Euthyphro, stating that

“The Christian says that loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by God…The Darwinian says loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by natural selection” (p. 73).

There are several criticism worth considering related to evolutionary ethical skepticism. First, it is unclear to me how “reciprocal altruism” is genuine altruism, given that it is given in order to get something in return.

Second, there is a vast discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma, with many options on offer for Christian theists that are intended to resolve it. I take the natural law response as described by Ruse to be one of the weaker theistic replies. The replies given by William Alston and Robert Adams, for example, are much stronger.[1]

Third, moral realists, naturalistic or theistic, will be dissatisfied with the views espoused by Ruse in this chapter. They will agree that for Ruse, as Keith Yandell puts it, “[t]here are no obligations, only feelings of obligation. Such feelings have no more relation to reality than a strong sense of being surrounded by unicorns” (p. 82). There is no correspondence to reality here, only groundless moral feeling that is selected for via Darwinian processes. Morality is merely an adaptive feature of our evolutionary history.

This leads to a serious problem. Yandell points out that on this view, no set of morals is better than any other:

Better and worse, insofar as they have any sense, are relative to the propensities built into the survivors. If the propensities lead to murder and rape, then our mores will come to favor these, and in no objective sense will this be any worse than if the propensities led to love and peace” (p. 85).

Finally, Mark Linville points out in his reply that Ruse ends up saying that he believes something (morality) that he knows is not true. Once you know that morality is not true in any objective sense, why continue to follow it, especially when it frustrates other desires you possess? There are reasons, good reasons, to be moral. But Ruse’s view does not possess the resources to ground a robust form of moral motivation. This is one of the many serious flaws it contains.

 

[1] See my “Divine Command Theory” at http://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/.

 

Image: "Evolved" by thezombiesaid. CC License. 

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 14: “Other Euthyphro-Related Objections”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

In the previous chapter F&C examined objections to divine command theory that flow out of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. In that chapter they claimed that most objections can be divided into two basic categories: arbitrariness objections and emptiness objections. The last chapter was concerned with the most common arbitrariness objections. In this chapter they examine a few more arbitrariness objections before moving on to the emptiness objections.

 

Some arbitrariness objections concern God’s omnipotence. Wes Morriston argues that God’s goodness and his omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If he is omnipotent he can do anything including commanding one to do unnecessary and capricious evil such as rape. However, because he is all good, he cannot make such a command and therefore these two foundational characteristic for theists are mutually incompatible and one must be forsaken for the sake of the other (or both must go). F&C offer three responses to this objection, all of which either clarify or qualify the meaning of omnipotence. Most theists (and even some atheists) respond that this objection misunderstands the traditional understanding of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean God can do absolutely anything, but only that God can do that which is logically possible. Hence one does not need to deny omnipotence, for one can respond either that there is no possible situation in which God chooses to issue an evil command or that it is not logically possible for an all good being to make such a command. Another alternative is simply to qualify what is meant by omnipotence by making it something weaker, such as the claim that “God has as much power as is compatible with essential goodness.”(173) The point is that one can escape Morriston’s objection by reconceptualizing his idea of omnipotence.

 

A second group of objections uses counterfactuals as a way of showing the divine command theory is problematic. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong acknowledges the theists’ point that “If God is good, he would not command us to rape,” but then goes on to claim, “Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counterfactual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.” (174, emphasis theirs) He offers no reason for why it is absurd and, in fact, F&C argue that its absurdity is not that obvious, “According to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional statement with a logically impossible antecedent . . . is true. So Sinnott-Armstrong’s suggestion that the consequent is obviously false is far from obvious.” However, Sinnott-Armstrong replies to this objection by simply claiming that the proposition ‘If God commanded us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape’ “seems plausible to most people regardless of technical details about counterfactuals.” (174) The main problem F&C raise if one takes that tactic is that logical consistency demands one applies the same counterfactual to any ethical theory, rendering them all arbitrary and ineffective. So, for example, regarding utilitarianism, “Even if rape never would or could maximize utility or usefulness for society, utilitarianism still implies the counterfactual if rape were to maximize utility, then it would be obligatory.” (174-175)

 

Another critic, Eric Wielenberg, suggests that “God does have the power to make any logically consistent claim but that it is only His character that prevents him from exercising this power.” (175) He asks us to imagine a situation in which God does not have that character, but is instead cruel and capricious. According to Wielenberg, if this counterfactual were the case, DCT would entail that gratuitous assault would be morally obligatory. However, the main problem is the terms as we have defined them. As the maximally greatest being, one worthy of worship, God would not be cruel and capricious. In order for Wielenberg’s argument to be successful, he must propose a world that is not possible, where a maximally great being is one full of hatred and cruelty.

 

Sam Harris attempts to critique DCT by saying that “we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude.” (177) He makes three claims: First, DCT entails the following conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children, then you are required to do so. Second, the truth of this conditional requires a psychopathic perspective. Third, accepting the conditional easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. F&C answer Harris by noting that, while the first claim is true, it is (1) a conditional claim that says nothing about what God actually commands, and (2) it is only morally obligated if God commands it. However, as has been stated several times, the conception of God being argued for is a morally perfect being who would not and cannot command such a thing. The hypothetical conditions are logically impossible. As far as the second claim, it only requires a psychopathic perspective if one is talking about blowing up buses per se, but it does not if the hypothetical conditions hold, i.e. that it is not unloving, unjust, and irrational. Hence F&C hold that Harris’s second claim is incoherent. As far as the third claim, F&C state, “A divine command theory insists that an action is obligatory only if God actually commands that action. It does not contend that an action is obligatory if someone claims or believes that God commands it.” (179) F&C point out that we can reject that God has made some such command for the same reasons that Harris does, because a good and just God would not do so.

 

Having successfully explained the arbitrariness objections, F&C spend the remainder of this chapter briefly examining two emptiness objections. The first of these is suggested by Peter Van Inwagen. Van Inwagen claims that God does not have any moral obligations, so nothing he does can be considered right or wrong. This of course would be true if one was to conceive of God’s moral perfection in terms of obligations and duties. However, F&C point out that many theologians and philosophers do not think of God’s goodness so much in terms of duties as character traits such as truthful, benevolent, loving, and gracious. It is certainly possible to exhibit such traits without reference to any particular duties.

 

The other emptiness objection comes again from Sam Harris, who claims that, if God is not bound by moral duties then he does not have to be good. (183) F&C respond by clarifying what is meant by “God does not have to be good.” If it means, “he is not under an obligation to be good” then of course the implication holds. However, if Harris is implying that “God does not have to be good” implies he can be evil, then the implication does not hold, for the term ‘God’ means a maximally great being, which includes moral perfection. Hence, by this conception, it is impossible for God not to be good.

 

Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 13: “Arbitrary Divine Commands? The Euthyphro Dilemma.”

Did God Really Command Genocide?  

The reason critics typically see a divine command theory as coming to ruin is due to a more substantive family of objections clustered around an argument known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which comes from an early Socratic dialogue. The dilemma arises from this central question from that dialogue: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Adapted to a monotheistic context, the dilemma can be recast like this: “Are actions wrong because God prohibits them, or does God prohibit them because they are wrong?” Either way we go, James Rachels argues, we seem to run into a problem. Either God’s commands are arbitrary and the goodness of God is rendered meaningless, or we admit there is a standard of right and wrong independent of God’s will.

Rachels offers two fairly standard criticisms of divine command theory. The first is that a divine command theory (DCT) makes God’s commands arbitrary. This is the arbitrariness objection. The second is that DCT renders empty or meaningless the doctrine that God is good. To say “God is good” is to say nothing more than that God is what God commands. F&C call this the emptiness objection.

The Arbitrariness Objection

F&C distinguish two versions of this objection. One is that a divine command theory implies that God’s commands are arbitrary—that God can have no reasons of any sort for commanding as he does and that his decisions are purely whimsical and capricious. The other version is that a divine command theory implies that the content of morality is itself arbitrary. Both will be discussed, along with the “prior obligations objection.”

Arbitrary Because God Has No Reasons” Objection

Shafer-Landau (henceforth ‘S-L’) argues that God can have no reasons for issuing the commands he does on DCT. Either God has reasons for his commands, or he doesn’t. If he does, those reasons, and not God’s having commanded various actions, make those actions right. If he doesn’t, God’s choice is arbitrary.

This argument is flawed because he gets slippery with his terminology. He says that if God has excellent reasons for his commands, then those reasons—and not the command—make the commanded action seem right. But in this context, the word “make” can be used in two very different senses—the constitutive explanation and the motivational explanation.

Constitutive explanation: This kind of explanation explains or lays out the factors that make up or constitute a thing. What makes a cup of clear liquid a cup of water is the fact that the liquid is H2O.

Motivational explanation: This kind of explanation attempts to tell us why an agent acted the way he did by giving us the reasons or motivations the agent acted on. A parent’s love for his child makes him persevere over the long haul of parenting. This is a different explanation from laying out factors that constitute a thing or make it up.

If S-L is using the word “makes” to refer to a motivational explanation, then his affirmation is quite correct. If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons do motivate God’s decision to command what he says. But when DCT claims that God’s commands make an action wrong, it’s not claiming that among God’s reasons for commanding something is that he has commanded it!

DCT offers a constitutive explanation of moral obligation. So what happens when S-L uses the word “makes” to refer to a constitutive explanation, not a motivational one? The adjustment looks like this: If God’s commands are based on reasons, then it is those reasons and not God’s commands that are identical with moral rightness. But this seems clearly false. If a judge has excellent reasons for issuing a verdict in a case, S-L’s reasoning would entail that those reasons are the verdict. Or if a university has good reasons for conferring a degree on a doctoral candidate, then those reasons are identical to the conferral of a degree. Such inferences are obviously flawed.

Another argument S-L gives to show that DCT makes morality arbitrary is this: Absent divine disapproval, nothing is immoral. This, though, is mistaken. God could prohibit rape for reasons other than the fact that rape is morally wrong, and the prohibition could still be backed by the right kind of nonarbitrary reasons. Among those nonarbitrary characteristics: an action could cause severe harm, violate someone’s autonomy, show contempt for a person, etc.

Recall that DCT is a theory of moral obligation, not moral goodness. Just as there is a distinction between the good and the right, there’s a distinction between badness and wrongness. The badness of an action could be part of the motivating reasons for prohibiting it.

Perhaps the perceived problem here is that the existence of such goodness-enhancing reasons makes a divine command theory appear explanatorily unnecessary. This perception is mistaken for at least two reasons. First, it relies on fallacious reasoning. Even if certain characteristics of an action provide God with a sufficient reason for prohibiting that action, it doesn’t follow that (apart from God’s issuing a command) we have sufficient reason to refrain from it. God doesn’t have our epistemic limitations. Second, even if one grants this kind of reasoning, it’s not clearly a problem for DCT. We may have sufficient reasons to perform some action, but these still may not obligate us to carry out that action apart from God’s command. Moral obligations are not identical with what one has good reasons to do. Obligations involve a certain type of reason to act: one that involves a demand with which we must comply, one by which others can rationally blame us and reproach us for failing to do, and the like.

Excursus: God’s Commands and Prior Reasons

Mackie and Cudworth raised a prior reasons objection to DCT: God can only make something obligatory by commanding it if there’s first a general obligation for us to obey him. God’s commands thus can’t be the source of moral obligations. Despite its initial appeal, this argument fails for at least two reasons.

First, the argument generalizes. It applies to every account of moral obligations within any given ethical theory, secular or theological. Take social contract theory, which says moral obligations are those requirements that rational, impartial persons in a society would agree to. But one could argue that we are morally obligated to such a contract only if there is already an obligation to follow such hypothetical agreements. So the hypothetical agreement can’t itself be the source of moral obligation. The same can be said about every major account of moral obligations defended today.

What has gone wrong with the argument? It plays on an ambiguity between two claims—what is called “the fallacy of equivocation.” Note the ambiguity between the following two claims:

  1. If God commands X, then we have an obligation to do X, and
  2. There is an obligation to do what God commands.

Only the second of these claims affirms the actual existence of an obligation to obey God. The first claim does not. Rather 1 makes a conditional claim: it claims that if God commands a specific action, then we have an obligation to do that action. 1’s truth is compatible with there being no obligations at all.

Mackie’s central claim is false that DCT requires 2. All DCT needs is 1. 1 is based on God’s particular status as a moral lawgiver. God jointly possesses various characteristics or traits such that his act of commanding is sufficient to constitute moral obligations. This is what Adams was getting at in discussing issues like creation, benefaction, and covenant as contributing to God’s will being a constitutive rather than a derivative moral standard.

Divine Command Theory Makes the Content of Morality Arbitrary” Objection

This objection says that if DCT is true, then God could have given us different commands just as easily. God could have commanded atrocious acts which would have then become obligatory. This sort of objection can be put in argument form:

  1. If DCT is true, then if God commanded us to rape, we would be required to rape.
  2. God could command us to rape.
  3. It is absurd that we could be required to rape.
  4. So, DCT is absurd.

The key claim is 2—that God could command us to rape, which is seriously questionable. DCT doesn’t maintain that moral obligations are identified with the commands of just anyone. God is understood as a personal being who is all-good, all-loving, and the like. Claim 2 holds only if it possible for the Greatest Conceivable Being, who is necessarily good, to command rape. What’s more, scripture itself makes clear how misguided such criticisms are. Because of his intrinsically good nature, God just could not command certain things (Jer. 19:5). God also can’t break promises (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:21) or lie (Rom 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Nor would God command us to hate him rather than love him or torture babies for fun.

This response to the arbitrariness objection is the essential goodness response—that an essentially good God could not command what is intrinsically evil. Are there difficult divine commands in scripture? Yes, but not impossible or intrinsically evil ones.

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 2

 

In my last post, I looked at Plato’s Republic and the standard he set for a truly objective moral foundation, one that can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism. In particular, I highlighted four items that he asserted were necessary: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. For Plato, if any of these items is missing, nihilism wins. I also argued that, while Plato’s understanding of the requirements for a foundation for ethics was correct, his details for them were not. Instead, classical theism (in general) and Judeo-Christian theology (in particular) can provide a solid foundation for morality, hopefully in a way that Plato would have appreciated. In this post, I’ll take a look at how Judeo-Christian theism meets Plato’s four requirements for a truly objective morality.

1) God - The Transcendent Standard

In significant strands of Judeo-Christian thought, God is the Good. Like Plato’s Form of the Good, God is the ontological source of everything else. Goodness is established in His character and grounded in His immutable nature. Being loving is good because it is God’s unchanging nature to love. Grace, mercy, honesty, and patience are all good because they are eternal character traits of God. The Christian Platonic theistic ethicist who has made this case most powerfully in recent decades is, of course, Robert Adams, in his seminal Finite and Infinite Goods.

Unlike Plato’s Form, however, the Judeo-Christian God is a rational, personal agent; God is the type of substance that can actually bear moral qualities. This fact overcomes a major problem with Plato’s system: how can things that appear to be characteristics or qualities actually be substances? John Rist explains this aptly:

God and God’s nature, Platonically understood, are the successors of the evaluative Forms and of the Good itself, and not merely are they successors, but they indicate metaphysical progress, for goodness looks like a quality, though Plato, as Aristotle realized, needs his forms to be substances. Unless goodness is substantiated in and as some sort of “good thing,” it appears to be an ungrounded quality, and hence incapable of doing the philosophical work for which it was proposed.[1]

Augustine ties the conceptual worlds of Plato and Judeo-Christian theism together nicely:

There is, accordingly, a good which alone is simple and, therefore, which alone is unchangeable—and this is God. This good has created all goods.[2]

There’s another theoretical advantage here. If there is such a thing as “the Good,” God’s being the Good makes sense of “the Good” being good, morally and metaphysically, unlike any merely abstract object—causally inert, impersonal, and unable to be good. “God is good,” then, obtains, both as an “is of predication” and “is of identity.” Another way to put it is in terms of the de re / de dicto distinction. “God is good” obtains both de dicto (the proposition is necessarily true in virtue of the requirements of the office of Deity) and de re (God himself is good—necessarily, essentially, perfectly).

 

2) God as The Good – A Recognizable Standard

The famous dilemma in Euthyphro—Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?—was no dilemma for Plato; for him, the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[3] Likewise, the Good was loved by the gods because they recognized that it is good.  For Plato, if you could see the Good directly you would immediately recognize its goodness:

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything.[4]

In Judeo-Christian theology, the same is true for God: If we could see Him as He is, we would immediately recognize his goodness. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Isaiah:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him…and one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

From Isaiah, we see the biblical perspective that rational creatures in God’s presence immediately recognize (and constantly proclaim) that He is good (which is one aspect of being holy). Along with this rational response, we also see emotional responses: the unfallen angels adore and worship God for His goodness and fallen man immediately realizes that he fails to meet this perfect standard of goodness.

This is not to say that God’s goodness will always be easily reconcilable with our clearest moral intuitions. Old Testament conquest narratives, for example, can be difficult on occasion to square with such intuitions. But difficulty is not the same as impossibility, and even the difficulty may not be as bad as many think, as Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan have argued persuasively in Did God Really Command Genocide? (chapters of which are summarized, one per Monday, on this site).

 

3) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Knowledge

For Plato, man, as rational animal, had the right faculties to know the Good (at least theoretically). Through recollection, right opinion, or through the hard work of philosophy, man has the ability to seek and comprehend the Good. In the Judeo-Christian world, it is the Imago Dei (image of God) that gives men and women the power to know God/the Good: God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27) The image of God in man provides the foundation for us to be rational agents.

Interestingly, both Plato and Judeo-Christian theism agree that while mankind has the ability to know God/the Good, this knowledge is generally limited and corrupted. For Plato, the process of the rebirth of the soul into a new body makes one forget what one has learned in the spiritual realm. This knowledge must be reconstructed via recollection, or right opinion must be converted to true knowledge via philosophy. As we can discern from the training Plato required for the guardians in The Republic,[5] this is an arduous task that requires proper conditioning and training from a very young age.

In Judeo-Christian theology, the fall of man has left him with rational faculties through which he can know God, but, by default, that knowledge is superficial and subject to corruption. Humankind can increase its knowledge of God both through general revelation[6] and special revelation (the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, in Judaism, and the Old and New Testaments for Christianity). While God can only be known in detail through special revelation, general revelation is enough to provide mankind with a rudimentary knowledge of God and of morality.[7] For both Plato and the Judeo-Christian theist, knowledge of The Good is possible, but it requires effort both rationally and emotionally to acquire and apply.

 

4) The Image of God - The Foundation for Moral Ability

For Plato, the tripartite nature of the soul gives humans the ability to be moral (or immoral) agents. The head (rational element) allows people to know the right thing to do and the chest (spirited element/will) provides the power to do what is right. If these two are aligned in a just fashion, then people can and will act in a moral way. If however, the belly (bodily desires) becomes the guiding source for the chest instead of the head, then men will act in carnal and unjust ways.

In Judeo-Christian theology, it is the Imago Dei and God’s grace that impart the ability for us to be moral agents as well as rational agents. Through reason, man has the ability to know the good. Through the will, with God’s assistance, man has the (theoretical)[8] ability to do the good. God’s transformative grace can enable us not just to live morally, but to become new creatures, to be inwardly transformed, and ultimately to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ. If God commands us to do something, He will give us the grace, if we avail ourselves of it, to obey the command. Clement of Alexandria helps us to connect all of these concepts together:

Further, Plato the philosopher says that the end is twofold: that which is communicable, and exists first in the ideal forms themselves, which he also calls “the good”; and that which partakes of it, and receives its likeness from it, as is the case in the men who appropriate virtue and true philosophy.[9]

 

Conclusion

Plato was an amazing philosopher, and he had a deep understanding of the requirements for a truly objective morality; however, the details of his view on how these might actually be fulfilled were flawed. Classical theism provides a foundation for objective morality that arguably meets Plato’s four criteria in a way that would have both felt familiar to him, while also serving as a needed corrective on certain key issues his worldview was not able to address. Judeo-Christian ethics rests on a foundation that is transcendent, recognizably good, knowable, and that humans, with God’s assistance, can obey. This is obviously just a sketch of such an argument, but if it works, classical theism can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism in a way that other systems, especially naturalistic ones, cannot.

But, given this foundation, why should people be moral? In the next posts I’ll look at Platonic moral motivation and its corollaries in classical theism.

Part 3

Notes:

[1] John Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality, p. 38.

[2] St. Augustine, The City of God, Chapter X.

[3] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[4] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 517c.

[5] If you are not familiar with The Republic, Plato spends a great deal of time talking about what type of education is required for the guardians and philosopher kings. This starts in their early youth as they are conditioned to love the right kinds of things and continues for decades with training in music, gymnastics, mathematics, and other subjects. Without this extensive and arduous training it is doubtful that one can come to know the good in the necessary way. This helps us see that the ultimate Good includes but is not exhausted by the Moral Good.

[6] See Romans 1:18-20.

[7] As discussed in the first post in this series and fortified here, Plato is an excellent source for seeing how much man can determine about God and morality solely from general revelation.

[8] Precisely how much ability mankind has is obviously a matter of debate. In the Judeo-Christian world there is a range of opinions on how much moral ability humans actually have. I think that most would agree, however, that most people in a certain circumstance can choose to either do or refrain from doing particular moral acts based upon their moral knowledge. Editor's Note: This site is firmly committed to the view that God’s grace is operative in all (prevenient grace in the case of unbelievers), that such grace is resistible, and that such grace is needed to do good. We affirm total depravity, but reject unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book II, Chapter XXII.

Image: "Plato, Bibliotheca Universitatis" by Attila Brunner - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plato,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG#/media/File:Plato,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG

Grounding Ethics in God: Why God's nature determines morality

Photo by  Faye Cornish  on  Unsplash

The classic apologetic argument from morality is that if God doesn't exist then objective moral truth doesn't exist. It's often assumed in this argument that somehow God's existence explains morality in a way that atheism cannot. However, this argument mostly focuses on why atheism cannot explain morality, rather than how it is that Christian theology offers a more compelling explanation.

What's more the classic Christian response to the Euthyphro argument is to say that the "good"  is that which is like God's nature and character (and because God is unchanging what is good will not change). But how is it that God's character provides the moral foundation for what is good?

I want to suggest that it is the theology of man made in the image of God that not only grounds morality, but also underpins our response to the Euthyphro dilemma. Because we are made in the image of God not only do we have reason to be moral, but what is moral is also that which is like God. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

In Genesis God decides "let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness"[1]. The traditional understanding of the image of God has been the one filtered through a Greek mindset. A concept which focuses on the abstract and tries to locate what it means to be made in God's image in terms of some property of existence. However, in the last century there has been much study into the concept of the image of God in its original Hebraic context. The Hebraic understanding of man made in the image of God gives a much more functional, and in many ways fuller, understanding of what it means to be human.

Genesis 1 tells the story of God building a temple (the creation of the Earth).[2] It is in the context of this story, and the wider context of the Ancient Near East, that we have to understand what the Bible means in saying we are created in the image of God. Ancient temples would contain "images" of the god for whom the temple was built. Images of gods in temples, or kings in foreign lands, were "viewed as representatives of the deity or king".[3] Kings in Egypt and Assyria were also considered "images" of their gods; meaning that they were ones who "acted on behalf of, and by, the consent of the divine."[4] Middleton points out that typically it was only the king who bore the image of a god, and the concept of all of humanity being made in the image of a god was incredibly counter cultural at the time.[5]

As people created in God's image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God's character, when we act as God would act: according to his character.

The image of God in Western Theology has often been thought of in terms of a mirror reflecting God's likeness back to himself, however a more apt description might be that of an angled mirror reflecting God's likeness to the world itself. The hebraic concept of the image of God tells us that God puts mankind on the Earth as his representatives, that the purpose of man is to show the likeness of God to the world and to live in relationship with him. Obviously we are not successful at this and most of the time we do not accurately reflect God's likeness, which is why  most theologians talk of the image of God in us being "marred". The consequence of this, though, is that the closer we come to representing God the closer we come to fulfilling our purpose on this Earth.

As people created in God's image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God's character, when we act as God would act: according to his character. Most meta-ethical theories hold that what is moral is in some way or another what is best for us either individually or communally (either because of the actions themselves or the effects of those actions). So we can see that because we best fulfill our purpose when we reflect God then what it is to be moral is to be act most like God's character. God's character is revealed to us supremely in the person of Jesus: as Wilkinson puts it "Jesus is the decisive norm for both divinity and humanity."[6] If we want to know how best to live as humans we need to look at God, and particularly his actions in Jesus.

This argument serves to do two things. Firstly, we have a simple reply to the so called "dilemma" posed by Euthyphro. Is something good because God commands it or does he command it because it is good. The answer is neither, the good is that which agrees with God's character. And because God's character is unchanging, what is good will also not change, and neither could God ever command anything that is evil.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that we as people are made in the image of God gives us a grounding for morality that atheism cannot. The traditional moral apologetic argument shows us that atheism cannot account for normative morality. However, we can do better than that. Not only can we say that atheism cannot account for morality, but we can show that Christianity can give us a solid foundation for morality. Furthermore, because we are made in the image of God we are living most authentically as humans when we reflect God's character. And here we have a concrete link between what is moral and the character of God. If Christianity is true then not only is there a foundation for morality but we have a clear indication of what it is to be moral in the person of Jesus. What's more Jesus not only shows us what it is to be moral, but by his Spirit he promises to help us in making us more like God. Although God's image in us has been marred Jesus's actions on the cross make a way for that image to be restored in us.

Notes:

[1] Genesis 1:26 NIV

[2] Walton, John, "The Lost World of Genesis One", IVP USA, 2009 Morschauser, Scott, "Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei", Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 - p.2-3

[3] Wilkinson, David, "The Message of Creation", Inter Varsity Press, 2002 - p.36

[4] Morschauser, Scott, "Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei", Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 - p.2

[5] Middleton, Richard, "The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1", Brazos Press, 2005 - p.100

[6] Wilkinson, David, "The Message of Creation", Inter Varsity Press, 2002 - p.37

Podcast: Dr. David Baggett on the Euthyphro Dilemma

On this week's episode, we hear from David Baggett regarding the Euthyphro Dilemma. Dr. Baggett provides an excellent summary and a compelling response to this classic problem for theistic ethics.

Link: Matthew Flannagan Discusses the Euthyphro Dilemma with Skeptics

Dr. Matthew Flannagan provides some great insights on the Euthyphro Dilemma in a podcast over at Skepticule. Flannagan explains the difference between ontology and epistemology in relation to the dilemma. Flannagan is on for about the first thirty minutes of the podcast. If you like, you can stick around after that and hear the skeptical evaluation of Flannagan's presentation.