Divine Commands and Informative Identity

Last week I had an exchange with Matthew Flannagan on divine command theory (DCT) in the comments section of the post “Does William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?” I raised some standard Euthyphro-type objections and asked for his response. He graciously replied even though he has treated the topic in much greater depth and detail elsewhere, particularly in his book, coauthored with Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books, 2014), and in his article “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” in Philo Vol 15, #1. I hope to respond at much greater length to his full treatment. In the meantime, I cannot resist making a few preliminary points in reply to his challenging comments in defense of DCT.

In my comments I offered the following statement of the “arbitrariness” horn of the dilemma:

“…it certainly seems intuitive for very many that moral goodness is not something that can be established by fiat, not even the command of an all-powerful being. Neither a consequentialist nor deontologist metaethic would countenance the possibility that sheer assertion can make an action morally worthy or unworthy. That bearing false witness, e.g., is wicked is not something that can be established by naked proscription, not even the proscriptive utterance of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. For any such command to have authority, it must have the backing of some creditable axiological basis (e.g. The Categorical Imperative; The Principle of Utility). To deny that commands need such a basis would seem to have the disastrous consequence of making might equal right, that is, the rules we must follow become the ones arbitrarily imposed by those with the power to punish.”

Matt, replies that I have construed DCT as a theory of moral goodness, whereas he intends it as a theory of moral obligation. Actually, I am not sure that these topics are easily separable. Surely, it is necessary that an act be morally good for it to be obligatory. Of course, the moral goodness of an act is not sufficient for it to be obligatory, since the act could be one of supererogation rather than obligation. However, that an act is morally obligatory does appear to entail that it is morally good, and so nothing, not even a divine command, can make an act obligatory if it is not morally good. Therefore, God’s command per se cannot make an act morally obligatory unless, in addition to and independently of that act of command, the act has the quality of moral goodness. So, divine command alone seemingly cannot be the whole story of moral obligation, but let’s see the rest of Matt’s arguments.

Matt is willing to allow my objection to be rephrased so that it addresses the claim that the DCT is a theory of moral obligation. He quotes Wes Morriston’s statement of the arbitrariness dilemma, a statement which I endorse:

“Either God has good reasons for his commands or he does not. If he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation. If he does not have good reasons, then his commands are completely arbitrary and may be disregarded. Either way, the divine command theory is false.”

Matt comments:

“I agree the second horn of this dilemma that if God lacks good reasons for commanding as he does they are completely arbitrary. The real bone of contention is the first Horn, and I just think this horn is false.”

So, Matt apparently accepts (second horn) that if God does not have good reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. Put simply, the moral authority of a command, even God’s, cannot issue from the command itself. Rather, the command’s prescriptions or proscriptions must be just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making quality. If, on the other hand, the command lacks such a right-making quality, then it has no moral authority, however august or powerful the commanding agent might be. Thus, the Jim Crow laws of the State of Mississippi fifty years ago, though backed by duly constituted legal authority, had no moral authority since they contravened fundamental principles of justice, arbitrarily reducing nearly half the state’s population to second-class citizen status.

He expresses the first horn of the dilemma, the one with which he disagrees, as follows:

“COND: If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation.”

However, Matt sees the phrase “ultimate ground of moral obligation” as ambiguous and suggests two possible interpretations:

“…’ground of moral obligation’ as I see it this can have several different meanings. Sometimes when we talk of one thing being the ‘ground’ of a moral obligation, we refer to some property, distinct from the property of being morally obligatory, which stands in an asymmetric dependence relationship to this latter property, so that the existence of the latter depends on the former. This is often what people mean when they talk of a right making property. A second use of the phrase ‘ground of moral obligation’ refers to what Mark Murphy calls an explanation in terms of informative identification, such as when ‘we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.’” (emphasis in original)

On the first interpretation of “ground of moral obligation,” an act A can be morally obligatory only if A possesses some property, distinct from being morally obligatory, which, as Matt says, stands in an “asymmetric dependence relation” with the property of being morally obligatory. It is the former property that people normally refer to as the “right-making property.”

Matt says that he accepts that moral obligation must have grounding in the first of the above senses Matt therefore appears willing to accept each of the following propositions:

(1) If God’s commands have moral authority, then God has morally good reasons for his commands.

(2) “…if God has reasons for commanding as he does, then there is a property distinct from the property of being obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”

Matt is willing to accept these propositions because he holds that they are compatible with the claim that moral obligation is also grounded in the second sense of grounding, which he takes as the core claim of DCT. In that second sense, to say that moral obligation is grounded in divine commands is to offer an explanation of moral obligation in terms of informative identification, as we do when we say that water is H2O or that heat is molecular motion. Matt puts it like this:

“DCT doesn’t deny that there can be properties distinct from the property of being obligatory, which ground that latter property in this sense. What a DCT typically claims, or at least in the form advocated by Adams, Craig, Alston and Evan, is that God’s commands ground moral obligations in the sense that moral obligations are informatively identified with Gods commands.”

From (1) and (2) it follows by hypothetical syllogism:

(3) If God’s commands have moral authority, then “…there is a property distinct from the property of being morally obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”

And what might that property be? It cannot be God’s act of command itself. As Matt admits, being commanded, per se, cannot explain moral obligation. An arbitrary or immoral command has no moral authority, and so can impart no moral obligation. Rather, a command has moral authority only if its imperatives are just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making property. In that case, it is not the command, per se that accounts for the obligatory nature of the imperative, but some other property that authorizes the command. If God’s commands have moral authority, then something other than God’s commands must account for that authority.

The upshot that the DCT as Matt construes it is false. What makes an “informative identification” informative? It is that such an identification plays an explanatory role. Identifying water as H2O permits us to explain the observed properties of water, such as the fact that it expands when it freezes, in terms of the nature of the water molecule, its atomic constituents and the bonds that form between them. Likewise, the phenomena of heat are explained by the identification of heat with rapid molecular motion. Similarly, the apparitions of the Morning Star are explained with reference to the constitution and orbit of Venus.

However, identifying moral obligation with divine commands tells us nothing at all unless we are further assured that all of the commands will possess some right-making property (e.g. they will be just, fair, righteous, equitable, etc.). In that case, what does the informing is the adduced right-making property, not the fact of command. When you are told that water is H2O, you have been told everything you need to know to understand the physical properties of water. When you are told that a morally obligatory act is commanded, that alone tells you nothing about why the act is morally obligatory. You must in addition be told what morally authorizes the command.

It appears, therefore, that “The morally obligatory is what is commanded by God” is not an informative identification like “H2O is water,” or “heat is rapid molecular motion.” Therefore, DCT as Matt construes it must be false.