bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 3: Reasons and Moral Obligations

This is the third in a series of posts about the Euthyphro dilemma. In this series, I am making a case that the Euthyphro dilemma provides the basis of a definitive objection to DCT. This case will take several posts to present fully. In part 1, I explained what the two options of the dilemma are and showed that these options are mutually exclusive. In part 2, I began to consider the problems that arise for any view that, like the divine command theory, takes the second of the two options.
In part 2 of this series, I considered the Arbitrariness Argument (AA), which serves as an objection to DCT:

Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.

Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).

Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.

Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.

Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.

As I pointed out, Premises 3 and 4 are the controversial ones. In the previous post, I made a case for Premise 3. In this post, I will make a case for Premise 4. There are two aspects of Premise 4, which are important to treat separately as much as possible. They are: (A) the reasons for our actions (which, importantly, are independent of and prior to God’s commands) ground our moral obligations; and (B) God’s commands (which are grounded in these reasons) do not ground our moral obligations. I will make a separate case for each of these aspects.
Recall that part of my case for Premise 3 involved what I called the Normative Independence Thesis (NIT):

(NIT): There are normative reasons (for action) that exist independently of and prior to God’s commands.

As I argued in part 2, in order to avoid the arbitrariness problem, DCT must accept NIT. Since, in order for God’s commands to be non-arbitrary, there must be normative reasons that favor his commands, a defender of DCT who insists that God’s commands are non-arbitrary is committed to the existence of normative reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands.
This is a highly significant result and in addition to supporting Premise 3, it serves as an entry point into a compelling case for Premise 4. What it tells us is that normative relations are independent of divine commands. If God’s commands are to be non-arbitrary, there must be such divine-command-independent normative relations. Since moral reasons are a species of normative relation, if normative relations can exist independently of and prior to divine commands, then it is reasonable to suppose that moral reasons can as well.
We can thus make the following concise case for (A): When we are morally obligated to do something, there are strong reasons of a particular kind to do that thing. So, plausibly, being obligated is just a matter of having reasons of the right kind and strength. Sure, it is not the case that anytime that I have reasons to engage in some action, I have a moral obligation to engage in that action. But reasons come in differing degrees of strength and, plausibly, when I have a moral obligation, I have it in virtue of having reasons that are particularly strong, so strong as to be binding.
A defender of DCT might push back against this argument by observing that a moral obligation is not merely a matter of having reasons. There is a vast difference between having a reason to Φ and being morally obligated to Φ. A moral obligation is binding; it is not a mere suggestion. Further, moral obligations are always obligations to someone. Having reasons is not the same as nor sufficient for being bound to do something for the sake of another person.
These observations are correct and important; there are important differences between merely having reasons and having a moral obligation. But the differences do not amount to an insurmountable gulf. As I noted above, in my concise case for (A), reasons come in differing degrees of strength. Some reasons amount to little more than suggestions, others are so powerful as to be overriding and demanding. Some reasons concern the welfare of sentient beings; other reasons are fairly disconnected from any being’s welfare. Some reasons involve the effects that an action would have on some person(s), some reasons do not. It is plausible that we have moral obligations precisely when there are very powerful reasons to perform some action, which reasons have to do with the well-being of a person (or, possibly, any sentient being)[1].
I will therefore make a case that, once we grant that there are reasons that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, there is no obstacle to granting that some such reasons are strong enough and of the right sort to constitute moral obligations. Before I make this case, I need to make some preliminary points and define some terminology.
First, as I understand them, moral obligations are a special kind of norm. Moral obligations have the following features:

(i) They are binding: when we are obligated, something is required of us, it is not merely suggested or encouraged of us.

(ii) They involve reasons: when someone is morally obligated to do something, she has reasons to do that thing.

(iii) They have a social character: moral obligations involve things we owe to others (and perhaps ourselves). Obligations are always obligations to someone(s).

A reader who is looking for places to criticize my argument might want to start here. I am offering an account of the features must be present for someone to have a moral obligation. We might object that I have left some important feature of moral obligations out or included some feature that not all moral obligations possess. I encourage anyone inclined toward any such objections to let me know in the comments section.
With the above features in mind, let me stipulate some terminology, with the caveat that I am not intending, with the following definitions, to capture standard or common usage. I am stipulating how I will use these terms and am doing so solely for ease of exposition. Nothing in my argument depends on using this terminology, but I have found that this is the best way that I can make the points I want to make. Here is the terminology that I will use:

A welfare reason is one that involves the welfare of a sentient being.

A person-involving reason is one that counts in favor of or against actions that affect the well-being of some person(s).

A recommending reason is one that counts in favor of (or against) some action, but does not do so strongly.

A demanding reason is one that strongly counts in favor of (or strongly against) some action.

A moral reason is one that is either a welfare reason or a person-involving reason and that is stronger than a recommending reason.

While I will talk of demanding reasons and recommending reasons,[2] we should not assume that this is a simple dichotomy. Rather, the strength of reasons exists of a spectrum; on one end are reasons that merely suggest (without requiring an action or being binding) and on the other end are reasons that are so strong as to make demands of us.
I will also understand a moral obligation as involving an all-things-considered ‘ought.’ In other words, when we say of someone that she is morally obligated to do something, we are making a judgement that takes all relevant factors into consideration; i.e., it is a judgement that, given present circumstances and all relevant considerations, this is what she ought to do. Claims that a person has (some) moral reason(s) to perform some act, I take to be (at least in most circumstances) pro tanto judgements. They are claims that, to some extent, a person ought to do something; but they are not all-things-considered judgements. As such, a claim that there are some moral reasons to do something is not the same as a claim that it is morally obligatory to do it.
An all-things-considered judgement, as the name suggests, takes into consideration all the relevant considerations. Reasons can conflict with one another. That is, in one and the same circumstance we can often have reasons that are opposed; one reason or set of reasons counting in favor of some course of action, some other set of reasons counting against the same course of action, and yet other reasons favoring an altogether different course of action. Reasons can also support and/or enable other reasons. The way in which reasons combine and interact is quite interesting and complicated, much too complicated to fully account for here. I recommend Jonathan Dancy’s Ethics Without Principles to those readers who want to understand this issue better. What matters for this discussion is just the idea that, an all-things-considered judgement results from the (often complex interactions) of pro tanto factors.
My case for Premise 4 rests on the idea that when we have moral reasons that are sufficiently strong, which are not canceled or counterbalanced by opposing reasons, that is sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated. In other words, if, all things considered, a person has sufficiently strong moral reasons to do something, then, just in virtue of this, she has a moral obligation. If this is correct, then having a moral obligation is just a matter of having, all things considered, reasons of the right kind and strength. Once we grant the existence of reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands (as even defenders of DCT must if the arbitrariness problem is to be avoided) there is no obstacle to granting the existence of reasons of the types I described above. In particular, there is every reason to expect that there are demanding moral and person-involving reasons. But, then, in some instances in which such reasons are present, there will be people who have reasons, the force of which is not canceled by opposing reasons (that is, all things considered), that are so strong as to be binding and that concern the well-being of persons. Therefore, in such situations, these people will have moral obligations.
I think that these claims can be best supported by thinking about some imagined but realistic examples. These examples will all involve people who have reasons and we will be able to make what I take to be fairly obvious comparative claims about the strength and content of these reasons.
NEW JOB

Sally has been given a new job offer. It involves similar work and responsibilities to her current job, but has a slightly different compensation package. In addition, the new job is five miles closer to her house than her current job.

The fact that the new job is closer to her home counts in favor of Sally’s accepting the new job. But it doesn’t count very strongly in favor; the amount of time she will save on her commute is of relatively minor importance compared to other considerations, such as how pleasant the work environment will be compared to her current job, whether she will be more fulfilled at the new job, and what her compensation will be compared to her current job. That it is not a significant factor by comparison does not mean that it is no factor at all. The relative proximity of the new job, therefore, is a reason for Sally to accept the new job even if not a very powerful one. This reason is merely a recommending reason. Note also that this reason is not obviously a welfare reason since it is not directly related to the welfare of anyone. Conceivably, Sally’s own welfare might be enhanced by saving a couple of minutes every day on her commute, but any such effect on her well-being is minor.
INCORRECT CHANGE 1

Tom is purchasing a small amount of groceries. The total cost is $29.60. He pays the cashier with two $20 bills and receives a $10 bill, a quarter and two dimes. Tom does not immediately see the error that the cashier has made, but as he is walking out of the store, he counts his change and realizes that there has been a mistake.

The fact that Tom has been given five cents more in change than he should have been given counts in favor of his going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Tom to do so. But it is not a very powerful reason. Five cents is not that big of mistake and the supermarket will almost certainly overlook such an insignificant error. In addition, this reason is quite far removed from any person’s welfare. The cashier will not suffer when she realizes that her cash drawer is five cents short. She may briefly wish that it was not, but she will not suffer because of the error. Nor will Tom greatly benefit from the extra five cents he now possesses.
INCORRECT CHANGE 2

Susan is at REI purchasing supplies for her upcoming backpacking trip. She buys a new tent, backpack, sleeping bag, clothes, food, and miscellaneous supplies. Her total comes to $1138.50. She hands the cashier twelve $100 bills and receives four $20 bills, a $1 bill, and two quarters in change. Susan is in a hurry and does not notice the error until she gets back to her car, where she looks at her receipt and counts her change.

The fact that Susan has been given twenty dollars more than she should have been given counts in favor of her going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Susan to do so. It is a more powerful reason that that which Tom has in INCORRECT CHANGE 1. In addition, Susan’s reason is more directly connected to some person’s welfare, namely that of the cashier who made the error. A $20 error is not tremendously significant, but it is significant enough that we can reasonably expect the cashier to suffer some (probably minor) consequences. Thus, Susan’s reason to return the $20 is a fairly strong person-involving reason. However, the reason is probably not so strong as to be demanding and it is probable that it can be outweighed by other considerations.
WALLET

Barbara is taking a short hike in the local hills. A few miles into her hike she finds a wallet lying on the trail. She opens the wallet and finds $125 in cash, credit cards, and a driver’s license. There is nobody else nearby on the trail .

The fact that Barbara has discovered the wallet counts in favor of her taking it to the nearest police department so that the police can contact the owner and return it to him (or in some other way ensuring that the wallet is returned to the owner). Given the amount of money contained in the wallet, and the importance of a driver’s license and credit cards, this reason is stronger than the reasons present in the previous examples. Further, this reason is more directly related to some person’s welfare than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. If the owner does not get the wallet back, he will lose $125, be forced to cancel his credit cards, and will need to visit the DMV to get a new license. These are merely inconveniences, but they are not negligible and they will have a negative effect on his welfare. Barbara has strong person-involving reasons to turn in the wallet (and thus, she also has moral reasons to do so).
DESERT HIKE

John has planned a multi-day backpacking trip through a remote part of the Arizona desert. Three miles into his hike he encounters a small child alone on the trail. The girl is clearly tired and suffering from exposure to the elements. She is sunburned, dehydrated, and malnourished. John tries to communicate with her, but the child is barely conscious and cannot answer John’s questions.

The fact that the child is suffering and will most likely die if she does not receive medical attention is a reason for John to cut his trip short and transport the child to the closest hospital. Given the amount of suffering she is experiencing and the value of her life, this reason is very powerful. Further, it is obviously directly connected to the child’s welfare. This reason is so powerful that it is difficult to imagine any factor that could outweigh or override it. John thus has a demanding, person-involving reason (thus, a moral reason) to render aid to the child. And, all things considered, this is what he ought to do.
The reasons present in DESERT HIKE are much stronger than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. Consider NEW JOB: Plausibly, if Sally ignores the fact that the new job is five miles closer than her current job, she has not done anything morally wrong. Sally is under no obligation to take this factor into consideration when she is deciding whether to accept the job offer. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 1: Plausibly, if Tom decides to refrain from returning the extra five cents to the grocery store, he has not done anything morally wrong. Tom is not under a strong obligation to correct such an insignificant error. Even those of us who think Tom is under some obligation to return the five cents, we will think that it is not a very strong obligation. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 2: Plausibly, if Susan decides to refrain from returning the $20, she has done something wrong. Plausibly, Susan has at least some obligation to correct the error. However, whatever obligation Susan is under, it is not a powerful obligation. If, for example, Susan decides not to return the money because she needs to get to an important appointment and correctly foresees that she will be late to the appointment if she returns the money, it is plausible that her decision is both understandable and forgivable. She will have committed no serious moral violation. On the other hand, John’s reason to help the child is very powerful, it is certainly stronger than a mere recommendation. Further, it is stronger than any other reason that I identified in any of the other scenarios. It seems reasonable to say that John has reasons to help the child that are so strong as to be demanding. If John fails to render aid for some reason, say, for example, because he does not want to cut his trip short, he will have done something very morally wrong.
My case for Premise 4 is something like an existence proof: by describing the above realistic scenarios, I am demonstrating how the existence of reasons in certain circumstances can make it the case that a person has a moral obligation. In DESERT HIKE John (a) has reasons to render aid to the child, (b) has reasons that are so strong that they constitute requirements; i.e., they are not merely suggestions, and (c) owes something to someone, namely, John owes it to the child to try to save her life. Thus, in DESERT HIKE, we have a situation in which the elements of a moral obligation are present and are present solely in virtue of the existence of reasons of the right sort. So, it is plausible that John’s moral obligation in DESERT HIKE is fully constituted by the reasons that he has to render aid to the child. Much the same can be said about many other cases of moral obligation.
The points that I have made thus far strongly support the claim that reasons of a certain strength and type are alone sufficient to ground moral obligations. But we will not be able to accept this conclusion if we think that God’s commands add something essential to the equation, something that can only be supplied via those commands. With that in mind, let’s turn to the second aspect of Premise (4), namely, (B): God’s commands, which are grounded in these reasons, do not ground moral obligations.
The suggestion that God’s commands make us obligated is implausible precisely because we know that an arbitrary command cannot make an action obligatory. And why is it that an arbitrary command cannot do so? I suggest that it is because a command is not the right kind of thing that could be what makes an action obligatory. After all, that Φ is commanded (by God or by anyone) is an extrinsic feature of an action. That Φ is commanded by God has nothing to do with (a) the kind of action Φ is, (b) the actual consequences of Φ, (c) the intended consequences of Φ, or (d) the reason Φ was performed.
Consider: Let Φ = John’s act of bringing the lost child to a hospital so that she can receive medical care. Let’s compare two scenarios: In scenario 1, God commands Φ. In scenario 2, God does not exist and so it is not the case that God commands Φ. The only difference between Φ-as-performed in scenario-1 (Φ-ap1) and Φ-as-performed-in-scenario-2 (Φ-ap2) is that Φ-ap1 has the feature commanded-by-God and Φ-ap2 lacks this feature. But Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 share every other features in common; they have the same actual consequences, the same intended consequences, they are acts of the same type, they are performed at the same time, by the same people, in the same location, with the same motives, etc. The one feature whereby Φ-ap2 differs from Φ-ap1 is an extrinsic feature. It concerns attitudes that a rational agent has taken toward the action, which attitudes, it is important to note, must, given that they are the attitudes of a perfectly rational agent, be grounded in reasons (which reasons must themselves must involve features of Φ). Given that the only difference between Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 is an extrinsic feature and that this extrinsic feature is one that is itself reason-responsive, it is implausible that this feature (rather than the reasons it is responsive to) is what makes Φ morally obligatory. Isn’t it more plausible that it is one of the other features that I mentioned above (its actual and/or intended consequences, the kind of act it is, the reasons for it, etc.) that make the action obligatory? How strange it would be if, rather than these other features, Φ is obligatory in virtue of a reason-responsive attitude that a rational agent has taken toward the action. In other words, that Φ is commanded by God is not the kind of feature that could make Φ obligatory.
In the following clip, Dennis the constitutional peasant makes a point similar to the one I am trying to make:

That a strange woman lying in a pond distributed a sword to you cannot be what makes you the supreme executive in the government. But this is precisely what Arthur Pendragon claims as the ground of his executive power. Note what he says: “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water; signifying, by divine providence, that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I’m your King.”  The ‘why’ here is not the ‘why’ of reasons but the ‘in-virtue-of’ ‘why.’ When he says, “That is why I’m your King,” he is saying that this is what makes him King. Arthur is claiming that he is King in virtue of the fact that the Lady of the Lake held Excalibur out to him. Dennis claims that this claim is absurd. That a lady in a lake lobbed a scimitar at you is not the kind of thing that can make you the supreme executive.
In making this point, Dennis says the following: “If I went ‘round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.”  If, instead of getting angry and using violence to silence his critics, Arthur had calmly explained to Dennis that the Lady of the Lake is perfectly wise and would never hold out a sword to a peasant, or any other person unqualified to be a leader, he would have missed the point. Dennis is not saying that, according to Arthur’s theory of executive power, it is possible for an unqualified person to become King (since it is possible for the Lady of the Lake to give a sword to any person, even an unqualified one). No. Dennis’ point, rather, is that getting a sword from a woman in a lake is not the kind of thing that could make one King.
Similarly, we may say to the divine command theorist that an action’s being commanded by God is not the kind of property that could make the action morally obligatory. And we know this because of the following observations (which, by the way, are agreed to by most defenders of DCT):

  1. The mere fact that Φ is commanded cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, any person could issue an absurd command (e.g., don’t brush your teeth before 7:00 am) and this would obviously not make for an obligatory action.
  2. The mere fact that Φ is commanded by someone powerful cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, powerful people often command horrendous things. That Hitler commanded the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population did not make it obligatory to do so.
  3. An arbitrary command, no matter who it is issued by, cannot make any action morally obligatory.

All of this strongly suggests that being commanded by anyone, even God, is not the kind of feature that could make an action morally obligatory.
It is useful to focus our attention on point (3). We know that if a command to Φ is arbitrary, then no matter who issues it, the command cannot make it the case that Φ is obligatory.  This strongly suggests that commands, on their own, are never sufficient to make it the case that a person is obligated to do something. In other words, since a command that is not grounded in reasons cannot make it the case that anyone is under a moral obligation, bare commands are morally impotent. If that is right, then in cases in which a person is obligated to do something that he has been commanded to do, that person must be so-obligated in virtue of something other than the fact that he has been so-commanded.
Undoubtedly, there are cases in which a person that has been commanded do something is obligated to do that thing. One reason that this might be so is that the person is obligated in virtue of something independent of and prior to the command and the command serves as something like a reminder of this independent and prior obligation. But this sort of account will not cover all cases in which a person is obligated to do what she has been commanded to do.
There are other kinds of cases that we need to consider: cases in which some person is obligated to do something that she has been commanded to do but would not have been so-obligated if she had not been so-commanded. That is, there are circumstances in which the fact that a commander, C, commands someone, S, to Φ implies (in some sense of “implies”) that S is obligated to Φ. Military contexts provide examples of such cases. When a military subordinate is commanded to do something, he is obligated to do what he is commanded to do and, at least in some instances, would not have been obligated in the absence of the command. How do we square this with my above claim that bare commands are morally impotent?
I suggest that when the fact that C commands that S Φ makes it the case that S is obligated to Φ this is because of the existence of a prior obligation to obey C, which S is under. When a military subordinate is obligated to obey the commands of her superior officer, this is because, as a member of the military, she has an obligation (which is independent of the authority of any particular commanding officer) to obey the (lawful) commands of superior officers. In the absence of any such prior and independent obligation, the fact that S is commanded to Φ cannot establish any obligation that S Φ. This is consistent with my claim that bare commands are morally impotent. When commanding officer issues a (lawful) command to a subordinate, the subordinate is obligated to obey the command; but the command does not, all by itself, make the subordinate obligated. It does so only given the prior obligation that the subordinate has, namely the obligation to obey his superior officers. The command, considered in and of itself (and thus outside of a military context), is impotent. And we can see this if we imagine that the command is given, not to a subordinate member of the military, but to me or any other person who is not in the military. If a US Army general orders me to do something, this does not and cannot make it the case that I am obligated to do what he orders me to do. Without the prior obligation to obey the lawful commands of a superior officer, all military commands are impotent in the sense that they cannot make any person obligated to do anything.
If the above is correct, then all commands, no matter who issues them, are morally impotent considered in and of themselves. The only time a command can make a person obligated is when the commanded is under a prior obligation to obey the commander. And this fact will not help a defender of DCT respond to the objection that I am raising against it. If a defender of DCT insists that God’s commands ground moral obligations in virtue of the fact that we are obligated to obey God, then she is defending a version of Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT) rather than Metaethical Divine Command Theory (MDCT). As I indicated in part 2 of this series, my target is MDCT and I am not here interested in raising objections to NDCT. The claim that our moral obligations are ultimately grounded in a basic moral principle, according to which we are obligated to obey God, is an interesting one. But as I have pointed out in other contexts, MDCT cannot rely on such a principle. On MDCT all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands, thus there can be no command-independent obligation to obey God. Therefore, appeals to our obligation to obey God cannot help MDCT here.
The upshot is that, with respect to the factors that make an action morally obligatory, the fact that God commands the action is irrelevant. A command, no matter who issues it, is not the kind of thing that could, in and of itself, make an action obligatory. Thus, God’s commands do not ground our moral obligations.


[1] Whether moral obligations extend to actions that effect all sentient beings or only persons is an interesting question. But it is one that it is beyond the scope of this essay. My point here is only that it is plausible that moral obligations are grounded in the presence of powerful reasons of the right sort (what sort that is will be determined through careful philosophical reasoning).
[2] This distinction is inspired by Joseph Raz’s distinction between mandatory and non-mandatory norms. See his Practical Reason and Norms.


References
Dancy, Jonathan (2004) Ethics Without Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Raz, Joseph (1999) Practical Reason and Norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

bookmark_border41,000 Denominations?

Bold Atheism recently tweeted the following meme:


What should we make of this meme?
Continue reading “41,000 Denominations?”

bookmark_borderDo We Need a Finely-Tuned God?

I have recently had a most interesting e-mail exchange with Professor Jason Waller of Kenyon College. His new book Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments will be coming out soon from Routledge. While, of course, I do not accept the fine-tuning argument  (FTA), I think Prof. Waller’s treatment is, by far, the best defense of it that I have seen to date. Here is the blurb I offered for the book:

Jason Waller’s Cosmological Fine-Tuning is exactly what is needed by anyone interested in this fascinating topic. He has mastered the technical issues and presented them clearly and accurately. The argument is judicious, fair, and nuanced and the conclusions are solidly supported. Highly recommended.

In a recent book of my own, Polarized: The Collapse of Truth, Civility, and Community in Divided Times (Prometheus Books, 2019), written with my old friend the Rev. Dr. Paris N. Donehoo, in my introductory remarks I offered a brief statement of the reasons that I am an atheist. It included these lines:

As for “fine tuning,” the argument is that, of all the possible ultimate, uncaused physical realities that might have been, we were, given naturalism, impossibly lucky to have one that permits our existence. Therefore, there must have been an a supernatural intelligent designer to actualize life-friendly conditions out of those vastly numerous possibilities. My reply is that, by precisely the same reasoning, of all the possible ultimate, uncaused supernatural entities that conceivably could have been, we were impossibly lucky to get one that both wanted our existence and had the power to create and control a physical universe so that it would produce us. Any posited ultimate (logically) contingent fact—natural or supernatural—will necessarily be only one of infinitely many alternative realities that were equally logically possible. Sauce for the gander. The upshot, on my view, is that it is meaningless to speak of objective probabilities of ultimate posits. Whatever exists as the ultimate, uncaused reality is neither probable nor improbable. It just is.

I sent these lines to Prof. Waller and he kindly sent a detailed response. Below is part of his reply:

…[T]he claim that we were impossibly lucky to get the right kind of god is really interesting.  I have two general thoughts about this claim.  First, the fact that the supposed god wanted a fine-tuned universe is part of the hypothesis itself.  As an analogy, suppose that we found strange crop circles in a corn field and are developing hypotheses to explain the appearance of exactly these particular shapes.  One hypothesis is the Alien Hypothesis (AH) on this hypothesis there are otherwise unknown aliens who had some unknown reason for creating exactly this shape in the cornfield. This is not overfitting the hypothesis to the data because the only reason for supposing that such aliens exist is to explain this phenomenon.  So it would be a mistake, I think, to claim that we were impossibly “lucky” to get aliens that wanted exactly the shape we happen to find.  The hypothesis under consideration includes the claim that the aliens wanted this shape.  In much the same way, if there is some weird graffiti on my car one morning I suppose that there is some youth who had some unknown reason for making this exact design.  Simply positing a youth who vandalizes cars or an alien who makes odd shapes in cornfields is really not going to help because it is presumably more likely that such a person or being would NOT desire the outcome than would desire it.  So we have to include the claim that the unknown person or being desired this outcome in the hypothesis itself.  Second, I think it is a major mistake for the theist to claim that the god is a contingent brute fact reality.  I absolutely agree with you that if our two hypotheses are (B) a brute fact universe or (B+) a brute fact god who made a contingent universe, then the first is theoretically simpler and so is to be preferred (all else being equal.) Much like positing a brute fact universe creating machine that made only one universe offers no theoretical advantage.  The best approach for the theist, I think, is the claim that the god is metaphysically necessary meaning that it exists in all possible worlds.  That way the same fine-tuning question cannot be raised again at the level of the god thing.  Why does the god thing exist?  It has to–it exists in all possible worlds.  Now the naturalist can make the same move without giving up on the contingency of our universe.  Of course, the naturalist could say that this is the only metaphysically possible universe and so it exists in all possible worlds.  But then we would need to radically rethink our modal intuitions.  To get a contingent universe it seems as though we either need the universe to be a brute fact or we need a necessary being with free will.  Otherwise, its Spinoza.

Here I would like to offer my response back. Perhaps I am missing something, but I do not see how incorporating the power and desire to create a finely-tuned universe into the hypothesis will help.
Let FT be the hypothesis that the universe, with its fundamental physical constants, was created by a god (a supernatural person) with the power and desire to create a universe of that specific nature.
Let VC be the values of the fundamental physical constants.
Let K be background knowledge.
Defenders of the FTA claim that VC is evidence for FT. In that case:
 
p(VC/FT & K) × p(FT/K)
p(FT/VC & K) = ——————————————————————
p(VC/FT & K) × p(FT/K) + p(VC/~FT & K ) × p(~FT/K)
 
Now we might raise a question about  p(VC/~FT & K ). We could argue that we really do not know what this value is yet, basic physics being not yet complete, or we could argue that physical processes, such as a selection process among multiple universes could explain fine-tuning (Prof. Waller considers such hypotheses in his book).
It seems to me, though, that the real problem is with p(FT/K). What is the background knowledge here? If FT is an ultimate posit, that is, is posited as an ultimate brute fact lying at the end of every explanatory chain, then, in that case, K can only contain tautological information, i.e. necessary truths. Necessarily—by definition—an ultimate brute fact is logically contingent. It is the ultimate reality—as a matter of fact—but it does not have to be. As a contingent fact, what other possibilities might have been instead? Normally, we would limit those other possibilities by appeal to background knowledge, but here we have extremely exiguous background information, limited strictly to necessary truths. It appears, then, that any possible state of affairs might have been the ultimate, original reality. Borrowing from my ex-professor John Earman’s example about what might emerge from naked singularities, the original existent might have been a single argyle sock, a patch of brown liquid, or a TV set playing Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech on endless loop. We are presuming that we have NO information to rule out any such possibilities.
So, if FT is an ultimate, brute posit, and if K contains only necessary truths, how do we assess p(FT/K)? We have two choices here: (1) We say that FT, like all ultimate posits, has no objective probability. This is the option I support. However, the FTA is all about assigning probabilities to ultimate posits. That is the whole motivation for the argument. If ultimate posits do have objective probabilities then, option (2) is to assess the probability of FT given only K. Prima facie that probability would be zero since there are infinitely many other possible ultimates (note that a probability of zero does not mean impossibility when the sample space is infinite). Hence we do seem to face the problem of fine-tuning with respect to FT as for any posited ultimate. Why this with just these properties out of the infinitely many alternatives? To posit a super-fine-tuner would lead to an infinite regress. So, the need for a finely-tuned universe is replaced by the equally urgent need for a finely-tuned god.
Here many philosophers would appeal to alleged metaphysical necessities to make some ultimate posits more probable than others. Thus, Richard Swinburne appeals to simplicity to argue that the God of theism is the most probable ultimate posit. However, post-Kant we know that metaphysical assumptions are slippery things. If theists are free to invoke the assumptions that support their side, then non-theists have that same freedom. Thus, Paul Draper uses the criterion of “modesty” to argue that naturalism is a more plausible ultimate posit. If, in the end, the FTA comes down to whose metaphysical assumptions we accept, non-theists can confidently expect that theirs will be as good as any—by God!
Many theists would follow Prof. Waller in regarding God as existing in all possible worlds. As it so happens, this is an issue I addressed in my last post before this one, so I will just refer back to that.

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 2: Arbitrariness

In the first post in this series, I pointed out that when we apply the Euthyphro question to DCT, we get the following options

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Reflection on these options yields the following two claims:

Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.

I also pointed out that since the DCT accepts option (II), it implies that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are obligatory. Further reflection reveals that it is not clear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally obligatory. But if God does not have any reasons for his commands, then those commands are arbitrary.
In this post, I will explain what arbitrariness is and why it is problem for DCT. In doing so, I will distinguish arbitrariness from some similar but distinct properties. Lastly, I will offer some considerations in support of the claim that if God has reasons for his commands, then these same reasons are reasons for us independent of God’s commands and would therefore be reasons for us even if God issued no commands.
I will begin with a preliminary point about the target of my arguments. When discussing the Euthyphro problem, it is important to mark the distinction between two kinds of divine command theory: normative divine command theory and metaethical divine command theory.[1] The normative divine command theory (NDCT) asserts that there is one supreme ethical principle, namely that God’s commands are to be obeyed. Importantly, NDCT does not involve any account of how this supreme principle is grounded. Just as important is the implication that this supreme principle is not grounded in God’s commands. That is, the principle that God’s commands are to be obeyed is not made true in virtue of any divine command; it is true independent of God’s commands. Indeed, for NDCT to be consistent, it must be that the principle is external to and independent of God’s commands. Metaethical divine command theory (MDCT), on the other hand, claims that all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. On MDCT, there is no supreme ethical principle that grounds our obligation to obey God. Rather, the property of being morally obligatory is grounded in God’s commands; God’s commands make it the case that we are morally obligated.[2] Importantly, NDCT is not consistent with MDCT. On MDCT, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. But on NDCT, the obligation to obey God is grounded in the supreme ethical principle, not in God’s commands. So, if NDCT is true, MDCT is false and if MDCT is true, NDCT is false.
It is helpful to connect this distinction to reasons. On NDCT, we always have reason to obey God’s commands. But the reason to obey God is not grounded in God’s commands; it is grounded in the supreme ethical principle (or whatever grounds that principle). On MDCT, the reason-giving force of a divine command is internal to the command; it is not grounded in anything or in any principle that is external to God’s commands. In this series, I am not criticizing NDCT or considering the application of the Euthyphro dilemma to it;[3] my target is MDCT. Thus, when I talk about divine command theories of moral obligation, I am talking about versions of MDCT (and ‘DCT’ has been and will be here used, unless otherwise specified, to refer to any and all of the several versions of MDCT). When we ask questions about whether and when we have reason to do what God commands us to do, it is important to bear in mind that defenders of DCT (MDCT) cannot, when answering such questions, rely on some general principle to the effect that we always have reason to obey God. Relying on such a principle entails abandoning MDCT in favor of NDCT.
What is arbitrariness?
Something is arbitrary when it is not grounded in reasons. To understand arbitrariness, it is helpful to distinguish it from other related properties. The claim that God’s commands are (or might be) arbitrary, is not the same as claiming that they are contingent, unconstrained, or unmotivated. I will discuss each of these other properties, and show that they are distinct from arbitrariness, separately:
(1) Contingent
A necessary proposition is one such that it is impossible that it is false. A contingent proposition is one such that, whatever its actual truth-value, it is possible for it to be true and also possible for it to be false. Another way of marking this distinction is to say that anything that is necessary could not be otherwise and anything that is contingent could be otherwise.
One problem for DCT is that it appears that, on DCT, all moral truths are contingent. This is not same as the problem that his commands might be arbitrary and it is very important to distinguish the arbitrariness problem from the contingency problem.  The contingency problem for DCT is as follows: Given that God is omnipotent, it seems natural to suppose that he can issue any command whatsoever. Suppose that God exists and has issued an actual set of commands.  Given that he is omnipotent, it seems that he could have issued a completely different set of commands. Indeed, for any command that God has actually given (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”) it is possible that he issued a command with contradictory content (e.g., “Thou shalt kill’).  Given this, it would appear to follow that, on DCT, there are no necessary moral truths. Since it is possible that God issues any command with any content whatsoever, it follows that there is no command that he issues necessarily and hence there are no necessary moral truths.
This is strongly counterintuitive. It strongly seems that at least some moral truths are necessarily true. Consider, for example, the moral truth that it is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously. This seems to be not only true, but necessarily so. That is, it is impossible that the claim, ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ could be anything other than true. But, on DCT, it appears, at least initially, that it is possible for it to be false. After all, an omnipotent being can, it seems, issue a command such as, “Thou shalt torture infants gratuitously,” in which case, on DCT, it would be morally obligatory to torture infants (and hence ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ would be false).
If DCT really does imply that there are no necessary moral truths, this is a strong reason to reject DCT. However, modern defenders have a compelling response to the contingency problem. The most common and plausible response is as follows[4]: God has certain characteristics that are part of his nature and he has these characteristics necessarily. The commands that God issues flow from his nature and it is not possible that God issues commands that are contrary to his nature. Since, for example, it is part of God’s necessary nature that he is perfectly loving, it is not possible that he would command us to perform cruel acts such as gratuitous torture.
In this current post, I will not be concerned to evaluate this response (I have argued that the response is not adequate to save DCT from the Euthyphro problem here). My aim here is only to show that, whatever the merits of the response, it is irrelevant to the arbitrariness problem. And this is so because contingency and arbitrariness are distinct properties. That God’s commands are not contingent does not entail that they are not arbitrary. The following example will, I hope, make this clear:
Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.
(2) Unconstrained
Just as it is a mistake to assimilate the arbitrariness problem with the contingency problem, it is also a mistake to think that the problem of arbitrariness is just the problem of whether God’s commands are constrained. Asura’s commands are constrained by his own character, but that does not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary. Again, it is plausible that there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants; indeed, there are powerful reasons for him to not issue such a command. (That Asura has motives for his commands is a separate issue, see below.) In just the same way, the fact that God’s commands are constrained by his essential nature would not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary.
(3) Unmotivated
The claim that God has no reasons for his commands must be sharply distinguished from the claim that God has no motives for his commands. The following example makes this clear:
A hiring manager who makes hiring decisions solely on the basis of the race of the candidates is engaged in arbitrary discrimination. His hiring decisions are arbitrary because they are not based on the candidates’ relevant qualifications. But that does not mean that his decisions are unmotivated. Quite the contrary. A racist hiring manager’s motives are all too obvious; he wants to prevent members of certain racial categories from obtaining employment at his company.
The upshot of this example is that the fact that some decision is motivated does not make that decision non-arbitrary. Thus, the fact that God has motives for his commands does not make his commands non-arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is not that God might not have motives for his commands. As the current example shows, even an act that has some motive can still be arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is the problem of whether God can have normative reasons for his commands.
Reasons and morality
The example of the racist hiring manager is important because it reveals two aspects of arbitrariness: First, it shows that what is relevant when it comes to arbitrariness is the lack of normative reasons, not the lack of motivating reasons. A normative reason for some action is a factor that counts in favor of our acting in this way whereas a motivating reason is a factor on the basis of which a person acts or decides to act. (I’ve discussed the distinction between normative reasons and motives in a different blog post, here.) In keeping with common philosophical practice, in this and other posts in this series, I will use ‘reasons’ to refer to normative reasons and ‘motives’ to refer to motivating reasons. Second, the hiring manager example shows that for some factor to be a reason the factor must be relevant to what is being decided. The racial characteristics of a job candidate are not relevant to the hiring decision because they are not relevant to whether the applicant can perform the job well.
If we put these two things together, we can understand the arbitrariness problem for DCT as follows: For God’s command that we Φ to be non-arbitrary, there must be some normative reason for, i.e., some relevant factor that counts in favor of, his decision to issue the command. But since, on DCT, the reason that God commands that we perform some action, Φ, cannot be that Φ is morally obligatory, it is not clear what reasons he could have for his commands.
It is important to say why it would be a problem for DCT if it implies that God’s commands are  arbitrary. The problem stems from the intimate way in which moral properties are connected with reasons. When we say that someone should or ought to do something, or that they are obligated to do it, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons for her to do that thing. More specifically, we can assert the following:

If Φ is morally obligatory, then there is at least some reason to Φ.

If Φ is morally wrong, then there is at least some reason to refrain from Φ-ing.

The link between moral obligations and reasons is probably stronger than this. That is, it is plausible that if Φ is morally obligatory, there is not just some reason, but overall, overriding reason(s) to Φ. Nonetheless, to see why arbitrariness would be a serious problem for DCT, we only need acknowledge the weaker claims above.
Thus far in this series, I have been focusing the discussion on divine command theories of deontic moral value (i.e., moral rightness and wrongness), but it is worth pointing out that all moral value, including axiological value, share this intimate connection with reasons.[5]

If Φ is good, then we have at least some reason to desire, pursue, preserve, and/or have some other pro-attitude toward Φ.

If Φ is bad, then we have at least some reason to avoid Φ, want that Φ not occur or exist, and/or have some other con-attitude toward Φ.

If God’s commands are arbitrary, the DCT threatens to eliminate this intimate connection between moral properties and reasons (at least that between deontic moral value and reasons). If God has no reason to command that we Φ, then there is no reason that Φ is morally obligatory rather than morally wrong. And if there is no reason why Φ is obligatory rather than wrong, it is difficult to see how we would have any reason to engage in Φ rather than refrain from Φ.
Philosophers on both sides of the dispute over DCT agree that arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations. Very few defenders of DCT are willing to defend the claim that an arbitrary command can ground a moral obligation. Indeed, much of the defense of modern versions of DCT has been aimed at showing that God’s commands are not arbitrary. And I think that the above observations about the connection between moral obligations and reason accounts for this widespread consensus. If a command is arbitrary, then we can have no reason to abide by the command because the claim that some action is obligatory entails that there is some reason for performing it, which in turn entails that there is some reason that it is obligatory.
Nothing I have said so far shows that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary. But even if his commands are not arbitrary, there is still a problem for DCT: if God’s commands are not arbitrary, then he has reasons for his commands. But there are very good reasons to think that if God has some reason to command that we perform some action, that same reason counts in favor of our performing this action, completely independently of God’s commanding us to do so. And if these reasons are independent of God, then, given the connection between reasons and morality, is probably these reasons that ground our moral obligations rather than God’s commands. Such considerations lie behind a famous argument that is often called the Arbitrariness Argument (AA). Here is one version of that argument

Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.

Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).

Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.

Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.

Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.

The controversial premises are 3 and 4. In the remainder of this post I will offer some considerations that I think strongly support Premise 3. (I will return to Premise 4 in a subsequent post.) That is, I am going to give three considerations that count strongly in favor of the following claim:

(TR) If God has a reason (or reasons) to command that we Φ, this same reason(s) counts in favor of our Φ-ing and would count in favor of our Φ-ing even if God did not command that we F.

The considerations that favor (TR) are:
(i) If there are reasons that favor God’s commands, then there are normative relations that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. This might be the most important consideration that counts in favor of the claim that morality must be independent from God (more on that below). For something to be a reason for something else is for it to count in favor of that thing. The reason relation, i.e., the favoring relation, is a normative relation. It might be the fundamental normative relation. Moral reasons and moral obligations are a species of normative relation. When defenders of DCT concede that God must have and does have reasons for his commands, they are conceding that there are normative properties that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Well, if there are normative properties that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, it follows that it is at least possible for us to have reasons to engage in some action(s) (and refrain from engaging in others) that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. That is, if God can have reasons for commanding that are prior to his commands, then there is no obstacle to believing that we can have reasons for acting that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. I will call this the ‘normative independence thesis.’
(ii) If there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s issuing some command, then the factor counts in favor of issuing a command with some specific content. That is, a factor does not count in favor of commanding, full stop; it counts in favor of commanding that we perform some action or other. The content of a command that we Φ is that we Φ. It is obscure (to say the least) how some factor could count in favor of issuing a command that we Φ and yet not count also count in favor of our Φ-ing. At the very least, it must be that whatever provides the reason for God to command that we Φ, it must be some feature of Φ that provides it.
The upshot is that if God has a reason to command that we perform specific actions (and that we not perform others), there must be something about the actions that he commands that we perform that gives him a reason to command that we perform them.
Consider an example: Suppose God commands that we aid the afflicted. If there is a reason for God to command this, then there is some factor (or factors) that counts in favor of his issuing this command (and these factors outweigh any opposing considerations that might favor, for example, commanding that we not aid the afflicted or issuing no command with respect to such acts). Whatever factor this is, it must be some feature of the act of aiding the afflicted. Plausibly, one such feature is that aiding the afflicted relieves suffering. It does not matter whether I am right about that, i.e, that this is a feature that counts in favor of God’s command. The point is that, whatever provides God with a reason to command that we aid the afflicted, it must be some feature of acts of aiding the afflicted.
I am going to call this the “action feature constraint.” This constraint means that whatever reason God has for commanding that we perform some action must involve some feature(s) of that action.
(iii) Reasons have a universal character. This is also a widely acknowledged aspect of reasons. It is somewhat difficult to state precisely what this universal character entails, but it is easy enough to articulate the intuition. If some factor is a reason for me to Φ, then it must be a reason for any other person who is in relevantly similar circumstances. Here is how Kant makes the point: “Practical good, however, is that which determines the will by means of representations of reason, hence not by subjective causes but objectively, that is, from grounds that are valid for every rational being as such. It is distinguished from the agreeable, as that which influences the will only by means of feeling from mere subjective causes, which hold only for the senses of this or that one, and not as a principle of reason, which holds for everyone.” (Kant 25) Kant’s point here is precisely that reasons (what he thinks of as “principles of reason”) have a universal character. This universal character implies that if I have a reason to do something, then this same reason is going to be a reason for any other person to act in a similar way.[6]
The Case for (TR)
We can now state the case for (TR). If God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then, given the normative independence thesis, it follows that there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s so-commanding and that this favoring relation (which is a normative relation) is prior to and independent of God. Given the action feature constraint, it also follows that this factor must be some feature(s) of Φ. Call this feature(s), F. Given the universality constraint, it follows that F is, to use Kant’s words, grounds for every rational being. That is, if F is a reason, it cannot merely favor God’s commanding that we Φ; it must favor the similar actions of any rational agent. Now, the act of commanding that someone Φ is not the same act or even the same kind of act as Φ-ing. But, given the action feature constraint, we know that F is a feature of Φ. It is obscure how some feature of Φ could count in favor of commanding that some person Φ but not count in favor of that person Φ-ing.
I do not take this argument to be a knock-down argument that establishes, with certainty, that (TR) is true. As I said, the three features of reasons that I listed (normative independence, the action-feature constraint, and universality) strongly suggest that if God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then those same reasons are reasons for us to Φ. Strongly suggesting is not the same as proving. What is true is that there is a strong prima facie case for (TR) and thus anyone who wishes to deny it must show what is wrong with the above argument in its favor. I suggest that the case hinges on whether (and if so, to what extent) it is possible that there can be factors that favor God’s commanding that we Φ that do not also count in favor of our Φ-ing. I invite readers to try to discover any examples of this.
There is one other point worth mentioning. I said that the normative independence thesis might be the most significant consideration that favors the conclusion that morality is independent of God. The reason is, once again, related to the connection between morality and reasons. As I pointed out above, when we say that someone should or ought to do something, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons to do that thing. If there are reasons, that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands that count in favor of God’s commands, then there is every reason to believe that there are reasons for us that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. Among these reasons, there may be reasons that are powerful enough and of the right sort that they constitute moral reasons. In other words, once we grant the normative independence thesis, there is no obstacle to believing that there are moral reasons for us that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Importantly, this point holds regardless of whether my argument for (TR) is successful. Even if the reasons that favor God’s commands are not reasons for us, the normative independence thesis strongly favors the conclusion that some factors or others favor our actions prior to and independent of God’s commands.
In my next post, I will more carefully consider the case in favor of Premise 4 of the arbitrariness argument.
 


[1] Mark Murphy makes and explains this distinction in his An Essay on Divine Authority.
[2] Different versions of MDCT offer different accounts of this making relation. On Philip Quinn’s view, God’s commands cause an action to be morally obligatory. On Robert Adams’ view, the relation is an identity relation. That is, the property of being morally obligatory just is the property of being commanded by God. Such distinctions are irrelevant to the points about arbitrariness that I will be making in this post.
[3] There are a couple of reasons for this. First, NDCT is implausible on its face in a way that is completely independent of Euthyphro-type concerns. Why would it be that there is only one supreme ethical principle and why would it have this particular content? Why not some other principle, such as that sentient creatures should not be harmed gratuitously? Once we acknowledge that there is at least one ethical principle that is independent of God’s will, it seems that there is no principled reason to think that there is only one such principle. Second, my aim in this series is to show that there are moral truths that are independent of the will of God. In as much as NDCT entails that there is at least on such truth, NDCT is consistent with this conclusion and does not threaten it.
[4] See Wierenga for an example of this response.
[5] I will discuss axiological value and its connection to modern divine command metaethics more thoroughly in a future post.
[6] It is important to keep in mind here the distinction between a pro tanto reason and reasons all-things-considered. My point is that if I have a reason to do some act, then this will be a pro tanto reason for any other person to perform a similar act in similar circumstances. This pro tanto reason, of course, might be outweighed by other factors present in circumstances that vary from my own. I discuss what it means for a reason to be pro tanto in my post, “On reasons and what they do.”


Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mary Gregor (trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1998
Murphy, Mark C.  An Essay on Divine Authority. Cornell University Press, 2002.
Thibodeau, Jason “God’s Love is Irrelevant to the Euthyphro Problem” forthcoming in Sophia.
Wierenga, E. “A defensible divine command theory.” Nous 17.3 (1983): 387-407.
 

bookmark_borderThe Possible Worlds Argument

This is somewhat more technical than our usual posts here at Secular Outpost. However, we have always thought of SO as a serious site for serious thinkers, and not for the usual invective that pollutes too much of the Internet. So, here is my take on the possible worlds version of the ontological argument.
Possible Worlds Version:
1) “God” =df “a perfect being.”
Premise: Definition of “God.”
2) If a perfect being exists, then that being exists in every possible world.
Premise: Perfection cannot exist contingently, i.e. only in some possible worlds but not in others.
3) If a perfect being exists, then that being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 2; definition of “necessarily exists.” A necessary being is one that exists in every possible world.
4) If it is possible that a perfect being exists, then that being possibly necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 3; principle of modal logic. If p ⊨ q, then ◊p → ◊q.
5) If it is possible that a perfect being exists, then that being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 4; principle of modal logic: ◊□p ⊨ □p (If something is possibly necessary then it is necessary.).
6) It is possible that a perfect being exists.
Premise: Assumption.
7) A perfect being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 5 and 6 by Modus Ponens.
8) God necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 1 and 7; definition of “God.”
9) God exists.
Conclusion: From 8; principle of modal logic. □p ⊨ p (necessarily p entails p.)
Comments:
            The crucial premise here is #6. It sounds innocuous enough. Surely it would seem closed-minded to deny that it is even possible that a perfect being exists. However, if God is defined as a perfect being, and perfection cannot exist contingently, then if God exists, God exists necessarily. In symbols, (∃x) Gx → □(∃ x) Gx. Further, if it is possible that God exists, then it is possible that God exists necessarily: ◊(∃x) Gx → ◊□(∃x) Gx. However, by an accepted modal principle, if something is possibly necessary, then it is necessary. Therefore, if God possibly exists, then he necessarily exists: ◊(∃x) Gx → □(∃x) Gx. So, to concede that God even possibly exists is already automatically to concede that God necessarily exists! Anyone who disputes that conclusion will therefore want to resist conceding premise 6.
What, though, besides not wanting to accept the conclusion, would motivate us to reject premise 6? Consider the following proposition G:
G: There exist one or more possible worlds containing gratuitous evil.
“Gratuitous evil” is evil that is so bad that no all-powerful, all-good being would permit it. An all-good being would prevent it and an all-powerful being could prevent it. Therefore, any possible world containing an all-good and all-powerful being will contain no gratuitous evil. Conversely, any possible world containing gratuitous evil will not contain—and necessarily will not contain—an all-good, all-powerful being. Put another way, if there are possible worlds that contain gratuitous evil, then, necessarily, no perfect being exists in that world, since a perfect being, by definition, is all-powerful and all good. Since God is defined as a perfect being, then, necessarily, God does not exist in any possible world containing gratuitous evil.
If you accept Proposition G, then you hold that there exist possible worlds (one or more) containing gratuitous evil. In such worlds, God necessarily does not exist. If God necessarily does not exist in such worlds, then it is not even possible that God exists in such worlds. But if there are possible worlds in which God necessarily does not exist, then it is not even possible that God exists in every possible world. Therefore, whoever accepts Proposition G, will reject premise 6, and so will reasonably reject the possible worlds version of the ontological argument.
Yet acceptance of Proposition G has even worse consequences for those who define God as existing in every possible world. If, by definition, if God exists, then he exists in every possible world, and if, necessarily, there are worlds in which God does not exist (i.e. he cannot exist in those containing gratuitous evil), then God does not exist! So, anyone who accepts Proposition G, and who also accepts the definition of “God” given in the above version of the ontological argument, may easily construct an argument disproving the existence of God!
So, then, the matter comes down to which of the following propositions you accept:
It is possible that a perfect being exists.
It is possible that gratuitous evil exists.
If you accept the first of these propositions, then the above argument proves the existence of God. If you accept the second of these propositions, then you do not accept the sixth premise of the above argument, and so you do not have to accept its conclusion. Further, if you accept the second of these propositions and you accept the definition of “God” as a being who, if he exists, must exist in every possible world, then you can disprove the existence of God so defined.
I regard it as eminently reasonable to accept the second of the above propositions. Prima facie it seems easy to imagine worlds in which the balance of evil over good is so great that no perfect being would permit the existence of such a world. For instance, it seems possible that a world might exist in which all sentient creatures, innocent or guilty, suffer eternal torment in the afterlife. In such a world, there is no salvation, and the innocent all suffer eternally along with the guilty. If such a nightmare world is possible, then it seems that no morally perfect and all-powerful being would exist in such a world. Hence, this would be a possible world in which God does not exist.

bookmark_borderIs It Time to Rename the ‘Problem of Evil’ / ‘Argument from Evil’?

I’m starting to wonder if the so-called ‘problem of evil’ / ‘argument from evil’ needs a name change. Consider the following list of known facts about ‘evil’ which have been used as the explanandum for various evidential arguments from evil:

  • biological role of pain and pleasure
  • empathy and apathy (neurological basis of moral handicaps)
  • flourishing and languishing of sentient beings
  • virtue and vice (self-centeredness and limited altruism of human beings)
  • autonomy (having control over one’s destiny) and heteronomy (lacking such control)
  • triumph and tragedy
  • moral progress and the lack of moral prophets
  • the (alleged) failure of theodicy

Putting aside the bogus objection that atheism entails there is no such thing as objective evil, it seems to me that the word “evil” has a connotation of “moral evil.” But most of the items on the list are not instances of moral evil. Grouping all of these arguments together, under the umbrella category of “problem of evil” (or “argument from evil”), isn’t exactly a model of philosophical clarity.
Suppose you agree with me so far. The question then becomes: what we should we do about it? For starters, I’m not sure all of these arguments should be grouped together under a single category. It seems there are multiple categories:

  • argument from (moral) evil, i.e., the morally bad/wrong actions of moral agents: empathy and apathy, virtue and vice
  • so-called arguments from ‘natural evil’ could be recategorized as follows:
    • arguments from imperfection / poor design / dysteleology (pain and pleasure, empathy and apathy, flourishing and languishing; we could also add the arguments from scale, hostility of the universe to life)
    • arguments from suffering (pain and pleasure, triumph and tragedy)
    • arguments from incomplete knowledge (moral progress and the lack of moral prophets, Schellenberg’s ‘free will offense’, failure of theodicy)
    • I am not sure how to categorize or subcategorize this argument: autonomy and heteronomy

Anyways, these are just my thoughts. What do you think?

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 1: The Question and the Options

The Euthyphro dilemma has been used for centuries as a basis for undermining theories that account for moral value in virtue of God’s will, activities, and/or nature, including various versions of Divine Command Theory (DCT)[1]. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century the arguments directed against DCT that are grounded in this dilemma came in for sustained and penetrating criticism, especially from those philosophers who were attempting to articulate and defend modern versions of DCT. As a result of such criticism, anyone looking into recent scholarship about the dilemma will frequently find philosophers claiming that the objections to DCT stemming from the Euthyphro dilemma have been undermined or refuted. By no means is this the consensus view of professional philosophers, but I think that, within the specialized sub-discipline of theistic ethics, there is a widespread view that the Euthyphro problem has been effectively enfeebled. Here are some examples of philosophers making claims to this effect:

the Euthyphro Dilemma has been, in our estimation and in that of many others, definitively answered in the recent literature . . . (Baggett and Walls, 6)

In light of these reasons, there seems to be no reason to take the Euthyphro dilemma seriously. (Copan 167)

It is my contention that what is generally construed as the Euthyphro Dilemma as a reason to deny that moral facts are based on theological facts is one of the worst arguments proposed in philosophy of religion or ethical theory, and that Socrates, the character of the dialogue who poses the dilemma, was both morally bankrupt in his challenge to Euthyphro, but more importantly here, ought to have lost the argument hands down. (Peoples, 65)

In short, a nuanced divine command theory can finally put Socrates’ troubling question to rest. Arguments for the autonomy of ethics can no longer rely on the Euthyphro problem to undermine the conceptual coherency of theistic approaches. (Milliken, 159)

I will argue that the Euthyphro dilemma represents no threat to the DCT. (Joyce, 50)

Adams’ version of a DCT evades this dilemma by holding that God is essentially good and that his commands are necessarily aimed at the good. This allows Adams to claim that God’s commands make actions obligatory (or forbidden), while denying that the commands are arbitrary. (Evans)

And here is a video of William Lane Craig articulating the view that the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for DCT:
 

The claims that Craig makes to the effect that the Euthyphro dilemma has been refuted, as well as the similar claims I quoted above are all deeply problematic. The Euthyphro dilemma, and the arguments it gives rise to are not some of the worst arguments proposed in ethics or philosophy of religion. The Euthyphro dilemma has not been definitively answered. There is no relevant third option available for defenders of DCT. And no modern version of DCT has been shown to effectively evade the dilemma. Indeed, my considered view is that no version of DCT can evade the problems associated with the Euthyphro Dilemma; that the dilemma poses a mortal threat to all versions of DCT, including modern versions defended by philosophers like Robert Adams, John Hare, C. Stephen Evans, and others. In a series of posts, I will carefully explain the dilemma, the different aspects of what is often called the “Euthyphro problem,” and the objections to divine command theories that the dilemma gives rise to. In addition, I will look at the most influential and significant responses that have been offered to the dilemma and show how and why these responses fail.
My goal in this introductory post is to carefully explain the nature of the dilemma. The dilemma comes from a question that provides two options that are mutually exclusive. I will explain the question, state and explain the two options for answering the question, and explain why the options are mutually exclusive.
As Craig says in the above video, the Euthyphro dilemma takes its name from one of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro. The central philosophical issue of the dialogue is the nature of piety. Euthyphro insists that he knows what piety is, which leads Socrates to ask Euthyphro to explain his account of what it is in order that they might put that account to the test. Thus, the initial question that guides the dialogue is, “What is the pious?” and Socrates makes it clear to Euthyphro that, in asking this question, he is looking for that characteristic (or characteristics) in virtue of which all pious things are pious.
The answer the Euthyphro gives, once he understands the question, is that the pious is what all the gods love. But Euthyphro’s answer, as it stands, is ambiguous. It is not clear whether Euthyphro intends to indicate merely that the gods love all pious things or, on the other hand, to indicate that the feature in virtue of which something is pious is that the gods love it. Only if Euthyphro intends the later has he provided the kind of account Socrates is looking for. To resolve the ambiguity, Socrates asks the following question:

Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Plato, Grube (trans.), p. 12).

I will call this the Euthyphro Question (EQ). Though I will be offering an interpretation of EQ and an account of the meaning and significance of the question, I am not here interested in the role that Socrates’ question plays in the Euthyphro dialogue nor with offering an account of any argument that Socrates makes in the dialogue. Everything that I say with respect to interpreting what Socrates says is aimed at understanding EQ and not at getting Plato’s or Socrates’ argument right.
EQ presents two options, which options are mutually exclusive. That they are mutually exclusive is a point that I will return to, but for now let us get clear on what the options are. They are

(A) The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious.

and

(B) The pious is pious because it is loved by the gods.

There is one potentially interesting but, for our purposes, probably irrelevant issue that I will briefly mention and then set aside. As it appears in the dialogue, a natural interpretation would have it that Socrates’s question involves an attribution of the property of being pious to the form of the pious. Option (B), for example, seems to be saying that the form of the pious is itself pious because the gods love it. It is an interesting problem for Plato that the forms seem to exemplify the properties of which they are the forms; that, for example, the form of the good is itself good. The prospect that they do exemplify themselves yields a famous objection to Plato’s theory of the forms, namely the third man argument, which Plato raises and considers in his dialogue Parmenides. While this is an interesting argument (and has applications that extend beyond Plato’s theory of the Forms), it is not relevant to the Euthyphro dilemma. This is because, despite the wording of the question given above, we need not interpret Socrates as making any claim or asking any question that implies or assumes that the form of the pious is pious.
What Socrates is saying, in offering option (B), is not that the form of the pious is pious because the gods love it, but rather that a pious thing is pious because the gods love it. To eliminate this potential confusion, I suggest the following revised versions of (A) and (B):

(A1) Pious things are loved by the gods because they are pious.

(B1) Pious things are pious because they are loved by the gods.

With that potentially complicating issue out of the way, we can now turn our attention to clarifying what the two options are saying. As currently stated, the options can be misunderstood. EQ uses the word ‘because’ twice, once for each option, but importantly, ‘because’ does not have the same meaning in (A1) as it does in (B1). This is probably the most important point when it comes to understanding the Euthyphro dilemma: ‘Because’ is not univocal in (A1) and (B1).[2] The ‘because’ in option (A1) indicates motives or reasons while the ‘because’ in option (B1) indicates a making (or in-virtue-of) relation. To get clear on this distinction, notice that the two options are accounts of distinct phenomena, or, to put it slightly differently, the options are answers to different questions. Option (B1) is an attempted account of what it is that makes something pious. It is an attempt to answer the question, “In virtue of what is something pious?” or “What is the feature (or features) that makes something pious?”  Option (A1) does not attempt to answer this sort of question, rather, option (A1) is a proposed account of why the gods love pious things. It purports to answer the question, “Why do the gods love pious things?” or “For what reason do the gods love pious things?”
So now we have two questions that correspond to the two options in the dilemma. They are:

(Qa) For what reason do the gods love pious things?

(Qb) In virtue of what feature(s) is something pious?

Option (A1) is a proposed answer to (Qa). Option (B1) is a proposed answer to (Qb). Given this, we can see that the ‘because’ in option (A1) is not the same ‘because’ as that in (B1).
Let me say a bit more about the ‘because’ of (B1). When we say that some object, o, possesses some feature, f, because the object satisfies some other predicate, P, we are saying that o is f in virtue of the fact that o satisfies P. Another way of saying this is that what makes it the case that o is f is the fact that o is P. Thus, to say that something is pious because the gods love it is to say that an object is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it, or, equivalently, that what makes something pious is that it is loved by the gods. This in-virtue-of/making relation is not necessarily a causal relation. We should not think that Socrates is looking for a feature that causes pious things to be pious. Some making relations are causal relations, but not all. That is, while a causal relation is often a making relation, not all making relations are causal. When an umpire calls a pitch a strike, that makes it the case that it is a strike (it is a strike in virtue of the fact that the umpire called it a strike), but it would not be correct to say that the umpire’s calling it a strike causes it to be a strike. The upshot is that when Socrates ask what it is that pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious, he is not asking for what causes them to be pious.
Thus, options (B1) can thus be reworded as follows:

(B2) Pious things are pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them.

And option (A1) can be made more clear by rewording it as,

(A2) The reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious.

These options are mutually exclusive. That is, if we accept option (A2) then we cannot accept option (B2) and if we accept (B2), then we cannot accept (A2).
And this leads us to the crux of the dilemma: if Euthyphro is offering an account of what makes something pious, then, on his view, something is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it. But if something is pious in virtue of the facts that the gods love it, then it cannot be that the gods love it because it is pious. On the other hand, if the gods love pious things because they are pious, then their being pious is logically prior to the god’s loving them; and therefore, things cannot be pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them. To put it succinctly, option (A2) logically rules out options (B2) and option (B2) logically rules out option (A2).
In the context of the dialogue this is significant because, if Euthyphro maintains that (A2) is the correct answer to Socrates’ question (as in the dialogue, he does), then he has not offered an account of the pious. That is, if Euthyphro thinks that the reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious, then, since on this option it cannot be that what makes something pious is that the gods love them, Euthyphro, in saying that the pious is what all the gods love has not thereby told us what all pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious. This is a purely logical point: If the reason that the gods love a pious act is that it is pious, then the act’s being pious is logically prior to the gods’ loving it. And, if what makes an act pious is the fact that the gods love it, then the gods’ loving it is logically prior to its being pious.
I will offer two analogies that I hope will make this point clearer:
Example 1: Film Quality
Suppose you are talking about films and film quality with a friend and you want to know what the characteristics are that make a film good. Suppose your friend says something like, “Ultimately, a good film is one that I like.” You might ask, in the manner of Socrates,

(Qf) Do you like good films because they are good or are they good because you like them?

 For this question, the two options are

(C) You like good films because they are good.

Or, in other words,

(C1) The reason that you like good films is that they are good.

And

(D) Good films are good because you like them.

Or, in other words,

(D1) What makes a film good is the fact that you like it.

In asking (Qf), you are attempting to determine whether your friend is offering an account of what makes a film good or is merely indicating that she likes films when and because they are good. Option (D) offers an account of what makes a good film good. Option (C) offers an account of the reasons why your friend like good films. If your friend answers (Qf) with (C), then she has not answered your original question, which just was the question of what features make a film good. We know this because if the reason that she likes good films is that they are good, then their being good is logically prior to her liking them. On (C), a film must already be good before she likes it. If, on the other hand, what makes a film good is the fact that she likes it, then it cannot be that the reason that she likes it is that it is good. That is, if (D) is correct, then her liking a film is logically prior to its being good and thus its being good cannot be her reason for liking it. If there is a reason for her liking it, it must be something other than that it is good.
Example 2: To-do List
Henry has been presented with a list of things that need to be done around the house. The list includes tasks such as replacing a faulty electrical outlet, cleaning the kitchen floors, repairing the leaky bathroom faucet, etc. Suppose we ask,

(Qt) Are the tasks on the to-do list on the list because they need to be done or do they need to be done because they are on the to-do list?

For this question, the two possible answers are,

(E) The reason that the tasks are on the to-do list is that they need to be done.

(F) The tasks need to be done in virtue of the fact that they are on the list.

If the reason that a task is on the to-do list is that it needs to be done, then it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the to-do list. And this for the purely logical point that if the reason that the task in on the list is that it needs to be done, then its being a task that needs to be done is logically prior to its being on the list.
If (E) is correct, then, as Henry tries to think of what additional tasks to add to the list, he will try to think of tasks that need to be done. And, as he discovers additional tasks that need to be done, he will add them to the list; and the reason that he will add them to the list is that they need to be done. But, precisely because of this, it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of being on the list. It is only added to the list if it needs to be done; thus, its needing to be done must be logically prior to its being on the list.
In this example, (E) is obviously the correct answer, and (F) is implausible. But to understand the nature of the Euthyphro dilemma, we should consider (F) and its logical implications. Thus, if a task is something that needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the list, then it cannot be that the reason it is added to the list is that it needs to be done. In this case, if Henry is considering what new tasks to add to the list, he cannot add a task to the list because this task needs to be done. That is, Henry’s reason for adding it to his list cannot be that the task needs to be done since nothing can appear on the list (and thus need to be done) until it is on the list. This is a purely logical point: a task is not one that needs to be done, on (F), unless and until it is on the list. On (F), Henry can add things to the list, but he cannot add them to the list because they need to be done. If he does add items to the list, he must add them to the list for some other reason than that they need to be done since, on (F) they are not tasks that need to be done prior to their being on the list.
Notice that if (F) were the correct option, then even if Henry do not know that (F) is correct, it cannot be that his reason for putting something on the list is that it needs to be done. And, again, this is for the purely logical point that, if some task’s needing to be done is for it to be on the list, nothing could be a task that needs to be done unless it was already on the list. Henry might think that the reason that he has added a task to the list is that it needs to be done, but since, on (F), what makes a task one that needs to be done is that it is on the list, it cannot be that a task’s needing to be done is a reason for (counts in favor of) its being on the list. And this is so, on (F), regardless of whether Henry knows this or not.
So, if (E) is true (F) cannot be true; and if (F) is true, (E) cannot be true.
EQ and DCT
I will close with some observations about how the (EQ) applies to DCT. Suppose we believe that our moral obligations are those actions that are commanded by God. We can ask, in the manner of Socrates,

Does God command that we perform morally obligatory actions because they are morally obligatory or are they morally obligatory because they are commanded by God?

The options for answering this question are:

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

One important point is that these options are mutually exclusive. Just as with the two examples just discussed (and for the same reasons), if the first option is true, the second cannot be true and if the second option is true, the first cannot be true. And so, we have the following two claims:
Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.
No modern version of the divine command theory or defender of such theory has refuted Claim 1 or Claim 2. If the Euthyphro Dilemma has been defeated and/or effectively answered, it is not because Claims 1 and 2 have been shown to be false.
Since DCT accepts option (II), it follows from DCT and Claim 2 that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are morally obligatory. This is the source of the Euthyphro problem for DCT. It is unclear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally required. Since DCT rules this out, it appears that DCT might imply that God can have no reasons for his commands. I will discuss this issue in my next post.
 


[1] ‘Theological voluntarism’ is the name for the class of moral theories that ground moral properties in the will of God. ‘Divine command theory’ names of a class of voluntaristic theories that ground moral properties in God’s commands. The Euthyphro problem is a problem for all versions of theological voluntarism, but in this series, I will be focusing on versions of DCT.
[2] S. Marc Cohen provides a good explanation of the equivocal nature of the word ‘because’ in the Euthyphro dilemma in his “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.”


Works Cited
Baggett, D. and Walls, J. (2011). Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford University Press.
Cohen, S. M. “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.” Reprinted in The Philosophy of Socrates. Gregory Vlastos (ed.) University of Notre Dame Press, 1971
Copan, Paul. “The Moral Argument,” in The Rationality of Theism. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (eds.) New York: Routledge, 2003.
Copan, P. and Moser, P. K. (2003) The Rationality of Theism, New York: Routledge.
Evans, C. Stephen, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/moral-arguments-god
Joyce, Richard (2002). “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (1):49-75.
Milliken, J. (2009). “Euthyphro, the Good, and the Right.” Philosophia Christi 11 (1):149-159.
Peoples, G. (2010). A NEW EUTHYPHRO. Think, 9(25), 65-83. doi:10.1017/S1477175610000084
Plato, (2002 ) Five Dialogues: Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, G.M.A. Grube (trans.) Hackett Publishing company.

bookmark_borderWhen Are Appeals to Human Ignorance a Legitimate Defeater of an Evidential Argument?

(A1) Evidential arguments from ‘evil’ say: known facts about the types, quantity, and distribution of good and evil are much more probable on naturalism than on theism.
(O1) Critics of evidential arguments from evil say: we don’t know that. We have far too limited an understanding of the interconnectedness of things to make such a judgment with confidence. On the assumption that theism is true (and there exists a morally perfect and omniscient being), there could easily be reasons, way beyond our understanding, why such a being would allow the facts about good and evil to obtain.
(A2) Evidential arguments from cosmic ‘fine-tuning’ say: the life permitting conditions of our universe are much more probable on theism than on naturalism.
(O2) Critics of such arguments say: we don’t know that. We have far too limited an understanding of the early universe, the total mass-energy of the universe, quantum gravity, etc. to make such judgments with confidence. (Cosmology is a very young discipline and there is much we still don’t know. For example, 95.1% of the total mass-energy of the universe is mysterious, composed of either ‘dark energy’ (68.3%) or ‘dark matter’ (26.8%).) On the assumption that naturalism, a/k/a source physicalism, is true (and there was no one around at the earliest stages of the universe’s history to make physical observations), there could easily be mechanistic explanations, way beyond our understanding, why our universe is life-permitting.
I’ve never understood why most proponents of (A2) seem to think (O1) is a good defeater of (A1) while not simultaneously thinking (O2) is a good defeater of (A2).