bookmark_borderThe Object of Moral Concern Problem for Divine Command Theory

Suppose that I steal your laptop on Friday afternoon. As the weekend sets in, I begin to be plagued by guilt. Initially, taking your laptop seemed like a great idea. I need a new computer, and yours is much nicer than mine. It is newer, has a faster processor, more memory, a bigger screen, etc. I had imagined with great anticipation how much better life would be with a nice, new, up-to-date laptop. But now–now that I must live with having committed the theft–every time I open the computer, every time I so much as look at it, I am overcome by intense feelings of remorse. After a few days of this agony, on Monday morning I decide that I cannot live with myself unless I admit my wrongdoing and try to make amends. What should I do?
Presumably one of the things that I ought to do is apologize. For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s grant that an apology is a verbal expression of sorrow that consists of three elements: (1) an acknowledgement that I (the apologizer) have done wrong; (2) an attempt (by me) to make amends (i.e., an offer to compensate or make up for, if possible, the wrong that I have done); (3) my promising to avoid engaging in such wrongdoing in the future. [Perhaps you disagree with this account of apology. Perhaps you have your own preferred account, which you believe is superior in some way. No matter. The point I am making depends not at all on my getting the concept of apology correct. All that matters, with respect to the point I want to make, is that there are instances in which a person might decide to do (1), (2), and (3) and that in some such instances, doing (1), (2), and (3) is morally appropriate.]
So, to whom do I apologize? For what do I apologize? And, how should I offer to make amends?
I contend that divine command theory (DCT)  gets the answer to these questions wrong. The answers surely depend upon the answers to two other questions: First, whom did I wrong? And second, what makes it the case that what I did was wrong? That is, since I ought to apologize to the person that I wronged, the question of to whom I should apologize depends on whom I wronged. Further, since I ought to apologize for that which I did in virtue of which what I did was wrong, what I should apologize for depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. And, since my offer to make amends ought to consist of an offer to compensate for the wrongdoing that I have done, how I ought to offer amends depends, again, on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong.
On divine command theory, what makes it the case that any instance of wrong-doing is wrong is the fact that it is a violation of divine command. So, on DCT, the answer to the second question (for what do I apologize?) is: I should apologize for doing something that violates a divine command. And the answer to the first question seems to be: God. I should apologize to God because it is his command that I violated and it is in violating his command that my wrongdoing consists. How we should answer the third question is less clear. It is not clear how I can compensate God for the wrongdoing that consists of my violating his commands. However, it is clear what I ought to do to find out what, if anything, I can do to make amends: I should ask God. I should say, “God, I have violated your command and for that I am truly sorry. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make it up to you.” Further, since God is the wronged party, if I offer a sincere promise to refrain from so-acting in the future, the person to whom that promise is directed ought to be God.
Let’s say that the person to whom we should offer apology when we have engaged in wrongdoing is the object of our moral concern. On DCT, it seems clear that the object of my moral concern, with respect to the wrongdoing consisting of my stealing your laptop, is God.
That is the wrong answer. When I have stolen your laptop, the proper object of my moral concern is you. You are the person I have wronged and it is to you that I owe an apology. What I should apologize for is taking something that belongs to you without your consent. Furthermore, the person to whom I should offer amends is you. I ought to return your laptop to you and ask if there is anything else I can do to make it up to you. And it is to you that I should offer my promise to never again engage in such wrongdoing. Therefore, DCT misidentifies the object of moral concern.
A defender of DCT may respond to the above argument thusly: It is true that, on DCT, God is an object of moral concern. On DCT, every time that a person engages in wrongdoing, that person owes an apology to God. But this does not imply that God is the only object of moral concern on DCT. Nothing prevents the divine command theorist from saying that, in addition to God, the person from whom you stole the laptop has also being wronged, and is therefore, an additional object of moral concern.

This response is devastating for DCT. Once we acknowledge that, in some instance of wrongdoing, there is someone other than God that has been wronged, it becomes untenable to claim that what makes any instance of wrongdoing wrong is the fact that it violates divine command. Presumably, if what makes you a proper object of my moral concern is the fact that I have wronged you, then it is possible for me to have wronged you even if I have not also wronged God by violating his command(s). But if it is possible to wrong a person without wronging God by violating his command(s), then it cannot be that what makes each and every action wrong is the fact that it violates God’s command(s).
Think again about the above questions: to whom do I apologize? for what do I apologize? how should I offer to make amends? If I have wronged you, then I ought to apologize to you. But for what should I apologize? The answer to this question depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. Again, on DCT, what makes it wrong is that it violated God’s command. But does violating God’s command wrong you? And is that what I should apologize to you for? Should I say,
“I sincerely apologize for taking your laptop. I know that in doing so I violated God’s command and for that I am truly sorry.”
No. This gets the nature of the wrong wrong. I might have, in some sense, wronged you by violating God’s command. But that is not the proper locus of my doing wrong to you. Rather, what I have done to you is taken a piece of your property without your consent. That is what makes my taking your laptop wrong; the failure to respect your autonomy by seeking your consent before I took your laptop. The wrong-making feature here is something that I have done to you, not something that I have done to God. If this is the correct analysis of the nature of the wrong that I have committed, then it is clear that it is possible to commit wrongdoings even in the absence of divine commands. This is because there are wrong-making features that have nothing to do with violations of divine command. It cannot be, then, that, for all wrongdoings, what makes the action wrong is that it is contrary to the commands of God.
Furthermore, my offer to make amends is misplaced if it is an offer to God to make up for violating his commands. To make amends for the wrong I have done (the wrong consisting of the taking of your property without your consent), I must make an offer to you. The obvious offer to make is to return the laptop (and/or purchase a new one to replace it) and to compensate you for the time, effort, and worry that you experienced during your stressful efforts to deal with the theft of your laptop. Offering to compensate God cannot compensate you; my offer of compensation must be to the wronged party.
Notice that, to make sense of the idea that you are an object of my moral concern and to properly identify both that which I need to apologize for and how I ought to go about attempting to make amends, we need to allow that what makes my action wrong has to do with harms that I have inflicted on you. What makes my theft wrong has everything to do with violating your autonomy and has nothing to do with violating God’s commands. Even if I had not violated any divine command (because, e.g., there are no divine commands), I still would have done something wrong because I still would have done something that has a wrong-making feature (namely, the feature of being an action that violates your autonomy).  Let me be as clear as possible: I am not denying that, in stealing your laptop, I have wronged God. What I am saying is that this cannot be the only wrong that I have committed. I have also wronged you. And this wrong (the wrong to you) has nothing to do with having violated God’s commands. Therefore, if the divine command theorist acknowledges that you are a proper object of my moral concern, this is a tacit admission that there are wrong-making features other than the feature of being contrary to the commands of God. Accordingly, DCT is false.

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 6: Arbitrariness and Normative Impotence

Here, again, are the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(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.
I have written five parts in this series about the Euthyphro Dilemma, the overarching aim of which has been to show that the dilemma provides the basis of a decisive objection to the metaethical divine command theory (MDCT). In previous posts, I have explained what must be done to establish this:
(A)  Show that the two options of the dilemma are mutually exclusive. (This was accomplished in Part 1)
(B) Show the two options are exhaustive (i.e., that these are the only options available) (This was accomplished in Part 4.
(C) Show that both options imply devastating problems for metaethical divine command theory.

i. Show that option (I) implies that MDCT is false. (This was accomplished in Parts 1 and 4[1]).

ii. Show that there are serious and devastating problems associated with option (II) which (individually or collectively) indicate that MDCT is false.

In defense of claim (Cii), I have said that option (II) just is the MDCT and that there are four problems associated with it:
(1) The contingency problem
(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem
(3) The arbitrariness problem
(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
In Part 5, I looked in detail at problems (1) and (2) and argued that, while these are serious problems, an objection to MDCT based on them is not decisive. In this current post, I will examine problems (3) and (4) and argue that an objection to MDCT based on them is decisive.
Problem (3): The Arbitrariness Problem
In Part 4, I described the arbitrariness problem as follows:

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.”

Defenders of divine command theory have attempted to address this problem in two distinct ways. Some divine command theorists argue that God’s commands are grounded in (or are expressions of) God’s essential nature. In his contribution to the volume, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough, William Lane Craig, for example, says,

On the theistic view, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. (Garcia and King, 30)

Let’s call this response to the arbitrariness problem, the Essential Divine Nature response (EDN). Other divine command theorists offer a response that is importantly different from EDN. This second response involves using the distinction between axiological value and deontic value. Those who rely on this response emphasize that MDCT is a theory specifically of deontic moral value rather than a theory of all moral value. Given this, they claim, the axiological value of actions can provide God with reasons for his commands. Let’s call this response the Axiological Value response (AV). I will evaluate these responses separately.
EDN does not resolve the problem because is not actually a response to the arbitrariness problem, but to the contingency problem. Thinking that it is a response to the arbitrariness problem is a result of failing to properly distinguish these two problems. I made this point in Part 2 of this series using the following example:

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.

That Craig, for one, confuses the problem of arbitrariness and the problem of contingency is made clear in his response to the criticisms (printed in the volume mentioned above) of his position that were offered by Louise Antony and William Sinnot-Armstrong:

The arbitrariness horn of the dilemma . . . is avoided by rejecting voluntarism in favor of God’s commands being necessary expressions of his nature.
. . .
God’s commands are not arbitrary in the sense that he could have commanded the opposite of what he did command.” (Garcia and King, 173)

The worry that God could have commanded the opposite of what he did command is not the same as the worry that his commands are not grounded in reasons. The former is the contingency problem, and while this problem is addressed via the claim that God has his nature essentially, as my comments above (from Part 2) demonstrate, that commands are expressions of an essential nature does not imply that those commands are grounded in reasons
Given the confusion between the arbitrariness problem and the contingency problem that this response involves, EDN is hopeless as a response to the arbitrariness problem. Let’s turn, then, to the second sort of response, AV. As I have indicated, AV claims that the axiological value of actions provides God with reasons for his commands. Baggett and Walls offer a version of this response in their Good God:

If “God is good” is true both as a predication and identity, a typical reason that God issues the commands he does is that the actions he commands are good. (Baggett and Walls, 126)

In his God and Moral Obligation, C. Stephen Evans offers a very similar response to the arbitrariness problem:

Restricting the account to moral obligations allows the defender of DCT to escape the dilemma implicit in the Euthyphro question. If asked, “Are moral obligations duties because God commands them?” the proponent of DCT answers yes. However, this does not imply that God’s commands are arbitrary. God’s commands are aimed at the good and therefore are certainly not arbitrary. (Evans 90)

A common way of responding to AV is to point out that if God has reasons for his commands, then these reasons will also be reasons for us to do what he commands and so his commands are superfluous. I discussed this issue in some detail in Parts 2 and 3, so I will not do so here. Instead, I want to consider a different but related issue.
Let’s begin by noting that there seems to be no reason to command things that are merely good. It is good to buy flowers for your mother on her birthday, but this does not seem to be a reason to command that you do so. For a command to be reasonable, it seems more is required than that the commanded action is good.
Of course, the DCT theorist can point out that she is not relying on mere goodness but on axiological value, which, it is plausible to suppose, comes in degrees other than simple goodness and badness. Some acts have higher/more or lower/less axiological value than others and it is only those acts that have very high positive axiological value that God has reason to command that we perform and only those that have very negative axiological value (or value lower than some threshold) that God has reason to command that we not perform.
But once this point is made, it becomes plausible that God’s commands would be superfluous. If some action is so (axiologically) bad that God has reason to command that we not engage in it, then, it seems, its badness is enough to give us reasons to not engage in it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command. And if some action is so (axiologically) good that God has reason to command that we perform it, then its goodness is enough to give us reasons to perform it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command.
The DC theorist must push back against this argument; she must insist that axiological value alone is not sufficient to ground moral obligations. On MDCT a divine command is necessary for making an action morally obligatory. This can be true only it divine commands add something normatively significant. Thus, MDCT is only viable if commands are not normatively impotent. In other words, the response to the arbitrariness problem we’ve been evaluating succeeds only if there is an adequate response to problem (4).
To get a better sense of this, let’s consider a specific action, say a gratuitous pummeling of Carl. Call this act, Pc. Let’s consider the act in two different contexts. Context 1 (C1), in which Pc is committed when there is no divine command to not commit it; context 2 (C2), in which Pc is committed when there is a divine command to not commit it.
On the view we are currently considering, Pc has axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc, but these axiological properties are not sufficient to make it the case that it is morally obligatory to refrain from committing Pc. Importantly, Pc has the same axiological properties in C1 as in C2. This must be the case if these axiological properties are to provide God with reason(s) to command that we not commit Pc. For the axiological properties to provide God with reasons, it must be that these axiological properties are prior to and independent of any divine command with respect to Pc. Thus, Pc has these axiological properties even in contexts when there is no divine command with respect to Pc.
The axiological properties of Pc, we can assume, include not just the intrinsic value (positive or, more likely, negative) of the act itself, but also the axiological properties of the consequences of Pc. Thus, it is reasonable to assume, the axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc include the negative value of Pc intrinsic to the act itself, and the negative value of the consequences of Pc. Let’s use the designation ‘VPc’ to refer to the total axiological value of Pc (it’s intrinsic value and the value of its consequences) The view under consideration has it that VPc (or some subset of VPc) provides God with reason(s) to command that we not commit, Pc but that the entirety of VPc is not sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from committing Pc.
The defender of MDCT can acknowledge that VPc  provides reason(s) for us to refrain from committing Pc; she must maintain only that any such reasons do not make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from Pc (since only a divine command can make an action morally obligatory).
For this to be the case, God’s command with respect to Pc must add something of normative significance that is not otherwise present. Another way of saying this is that MDCT implies that C2 contains something of normative significance that C1 lacks, namely the command of God to refrain from committing Pc. But for this to be so, divine commands must be normatively significant. I will now attempt to show that they cannot be.
Problem (4): The normative impotence of commands
Here is what I wrote about this problem in Part 4:

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

The DCT gets its plausibility from two consideration: first, since God is perfect, he will only command us to do what he has good reason to command that we do; second, that, as the creator of all that is, we owe obedience to him. But to understand the problem with option (II) we must think very carefully about the contribution (if any) that God’s commands make to the deontic status of an action. This means that we need to isolate the commandedness (so to speak) of an action from other features, such as that there are good reasons for God to command it or that we are obligated to do it in virtue of being obligated to obey God. The effort to isolate the commandedness is what lies behind the call to consider obviously arbitrary commands.
Consider the possibility that God commands that we floss our teeth in the morning rather than the evening, so that the act of flossing in the morning has the property of being commanded by God. How could this factor make a contribution to the deontic status of flossing in the morning? Could this fact make any contribution? Arguments against DCT that are based in the Euthyphro dilemma capitalize on the intuition that no command could make such an act morally obligatory. But it is worth exploring the basis of this intuition. Why is it that the bare commandedness of such an act cannot make a contribution to its deontic status?
The answer to this question has to do with the fact that commands are the acts of rational beings and that rational beings act (at least frequently) on the basis of reasons. We can only understand a speech act as a command if we presuppose that the commander takes him or herself to have reasons to issue the command. A command is a directive to some person or persons that they engage in some action or course of action. A command has a subject—the person(s) to whom the directive is issued—and an object—the performance of the specified action (or course of action) by the subject. To take oneself to have reasons to issue a command is to take it that there are features of the object that count in favor of issuing the command. (This point is directly related to what I have previously called the action feature constraint. See Part 2.) In other words, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are features of the subject’s performance of the specified action that count in favor of directing this person to perform this action. But to say that there are features of the subject’s performance of the action that count in favor of that performance is just to say that there are reasons for the subject to perform the action. Thus, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are reasons that count in favor of the subject’s performance of the specified action.
A defender of option (II) can accept this much. What she must say, however, is that the features of the object of the command (the subject’s performance of the specified action) that count in favor of the subject’s performing (or refraining from performing) the specified action do not make it morally obligatory (or morally wrong) for the subject to perform the action. Saying otherwise would contradict claim (II). If so, then a divine command must add something of normative force to the reasons that exist prior to the command. That is, a defender of (II) must assert:

(DC-Add) A divine command that some subject, S, perform act A adds something of normative significance to the reasons for S to A.

Before explaining why DC-Add is false, I want to distinguish between two types of reasons. As I used the term above, the object of a command is the subject’s performance of the specified action. Thus, an object-given reason is a feature of an action that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action. A command-given reason is any feature of a command (or the issuance of a command by a commander) that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action.
So, if there are object-given reasons for the commander to issue the command, then there are reasons for the subject of the command to perform the specified act. Importantly, a command itself cannot be one of the features of the object that counts in favor of issuing the command. This is because the features that count in favor of the command must be prior to the command. This just means that the fact that an action is commanded by God is not an object-given reason to perform the action.
One more bit of terminology: I will use the expression “reasons already present” to refer to the reasons that there are to perform a specific action (in a given context) and that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands.
Option (II) (and, hence, MDCT) implies that God’s commands add something normatively significant to the reasons already present. But examples that involve arbitrary commands or horrible commands show that a command, by itself, cannot add to the reasons that are already present. A command that we torture an infant cannot add or subtract to the reasons already present to refrain from torturing an infant. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot add to the reasons (or, rather, lack of reasons) already present. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot change the fact that we have no reason to do it. Thus, examples involving arbitrary commands and horrible commands show that DC-Add is false. In the case of an arbitrary command, there are no object-given reasons to perform the action. If we agree that the arbitrary command does not make it obligatory to perform the action, we are agreeing that the command does not add anything of normative significance to the object-given reasons. But this just means that, in the case of an arbitrary command, there are no command-given reasons. In the case of a horrible command, there are object-given reasons to refrain from performing the action. The command does nothing to change this. And so, the command adds nothing of normative significance. But, again, this just means that, in the case of horrible commands, there are no command-given reasons.
The reasoning from the above consideration about arbitrary and horrible commands to the rejection of DC-Add is as follows: If a divine command added something of normative significance, then even arbitrary commands and horrible commands would add something normatively significant. But neither arbitrary nor horrible commands add anything normatively significant. So, it is false that divine commands add something normatively significant.
A defender of (II) might want to insist that while arbitrary commands and horrible commands add nothing of normative significance, when there are object-given reasons to perform some action, a divine command does add something of significance. But such a view is untenable. To evaluate the claim that divine commands add something of normative significance, we have to isolate whatever normative force might be contributed by a divine command. And this requires considering commands in isolation from the normative force of other considerations (such as object-given reasons). When we isolate the contribution of divine commands (as we can when we consider arbitrary and horrible commands), we find that they make no normative contribution whatsoever.
Consider: If a divine command made a normative contribution, then in a situation in which there are no object-given reasons to perform an action (or one in which the object-given reasons that count in favor of performance are exactly balanced by object-given reasons that count against performance) a divine command to perform the action, in virtue of making any normative contribution whatsoever, would be enough to tip the balance of reasons and thus make it the case that the action is morally obligatory. But a divine command cannot do this.
There are no object-given reason to utter the sentence “The cute kitty cat came walking and sleeping and uttering utter nonsense last Tuesday evening at sunrise and bit the orange dog’s corpus callosum in the banana tree” once a month, every second Monday at 5:00 am. Nor does there seem to be any reason not to do so.[2] A divine command to utter this sentence cannot make it the case that it is morally obligatory to do so. This implies that a divine command to utter this sentence makes no normative contribution whatsoever. If divine commands made a normative contribution, then since there are neither object-given reasons that count in favor of nor object-given reasons that count against performing the action (and thus the balance of reasons is precisely neutral), a divine command could make it obligatory to utter the sentence. Since a divine command cannot do so; and this just means that the command itself cannot add to the reasons already present. So, a divine command would not add anything of normative significance.
At this point you might be thinking that there are social contexts in which a (non-divine) command can give a person reason to perform some action, which reason is not present prior to the command. When a commanding officer in the military, for example, gives an order, his subordinates are obligated to obey. And, arguably, children are obligated to obey when their parents tell them to do something. So, when a military officer commands that his subordinate perform some action, the subordinate has, just in virtue of that order, reason to perform the act (which reason was not present prior to and independent of the command). Thus, we might be tempted to say, given that we are obligated to obey God, when God issues a command, that command adds to our reasons, i.e., it provides additional reason(s) that were not present prior to the command.
This response will not help MDCT. The response just outlined assumes that, just as a subordinate is obligated to obey his or her commanding officer, we are obligated to obey God. But such general obligations (to obey superior officers or to obey God) exist prior to and independent of any command. The source of such general obligations is not a command, but something else. In the case of the military, it is plausible to suppose that a subordinate’s obligation to obey the commands of their superior officers is grounded in an oath that all military officers take. In the case of the children of children to obey parents, it is not as obvious in what the obligation is grounded. But the source of such obligations is not relevant to the point I am making. What is relevant is that the source must be something independent of and prior to the commands themselves.
By analogy, then, the response currently under consideration implies that we are under a general moral obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command. But that is incompatible with MDCT. The view according to which we have a general obligation to obey God is known as the Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT). (I have covered the distinction between MDCT and NDCT previously, in Part 2, and here.) According to metaethical divine command theory, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. Thus, such a view is inconsistent with the existence of a general obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command.
We are now in a position to state what I take to be a decisive objection to MDCT:  MDCT takes option (II) and, given this, it follows that the reasons that God has for his commands cannot be what makes an action morally obligatory or wrong (i.e., on MDCT, in the absence of God’s commands, the RAP do not make any action morally obligatory or morally wrong). On MDCT, what makes the action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. But this cannot be correct because commands are morally impotent; by themselves, they add nothing of moral significance. A divine command might be a response to the reasons already present (which count in favor of the performance of the action), but the command does not generate any new reasons.


Works Cited
Baggett, D. and Walls, J., Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Evans, C. Stephen, God and Moral Obligation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Garcia, Robert K. and Nathan L. King (Eds.), Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).


[1] As I say in Part 4: “If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command.” And, if actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, then MDCT is false.
[2] If you think that the length or silliness of the sentence or the energy needed to utter the sentence is a reason not to utter it, then consider any act such that you are sufficiently satisfied that there are neither reasons to perform it nor reasons to not perform it (perhaps, for example, the act of uttering to oneself the word ‘myrtle’ once a month on either the first, second or third Tuesday, sometime between 5 am and 10 pm).

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 5: Is there a way out?

Recall the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(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.
In previous posts in this series I explained what the Euthyphro problem is and why it is a problem. Here is a brief summary of my conclusions: The Euthyphro problem is a problem for option (II), and thereby, a problem for divine command theory. The problem is that if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then, since God is omnipotent, his commands are wholly unconstrained. He could command any action whatsoever, and since deontic moral value does not exist prior to his commands, it seems that he has no reason to command one thing rather than another. Indeed, he could command something horrible, such as the gratuitous torture of an infant, and, on option (II), this horrible action would be morally obligatory. But no command can make the torture of an infant morally obligatory. So, option (II) cannot be correct.
As I indicated in the most recent post in this series, there are four distinct aspects of this problem. They are:
(1) The contingency problem
It is possible for God to command anything whatsoever. Given this, no matter what commands God actually issues, it is possible that he issues different commands, even a completely different set of commands (in the sense that, in some possible world, he issues these other commands). So, since on option (II), morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, there are possible worlds in which different actions are morally obligatory than are obligatory in the actual world; and there are possible worlds in which actions that are morally obligatory in the actual world are not morally obligatory. This is problematic because it seems that at least some moral claims are necessarily true. In particular, it seems that there are some actions such that they have their deontic moral status necessarily. However, if option (II) is correct, then it seems that no action has its moral features necessarily. For any action at all, whatever its actual deontic status, it is possible for it to have a different deontic status.
(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem
The contingency problem is that, on option (II), all actions have their moral properties contingently. This means that there are non-actual but possible moral truths. A related problem (and a consequence) is that among the possibilities are some that are wildly counterintuitive. The above description of what I’ve called the Euthyphro problem contains an example: it is possible that the gratuitous torture of infants is morally obligatory rather than wrong (in the sense that there is some possible world in which torturing infants is obligatory). But there are other possibilities. It is possible that something morally laudatory, such as giving money to the needy is morally wrong. It is possible that something morally permissible, such as brushing your teeth three times a day, is morally wrong. And it is possible that something morally permissible, such as eating breakfast at 7:30, is morally obligatory.
(3) The arbitrariness problem
If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II), all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.
(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am. Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.
Defenders of various versions of DCT have argued that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for DCT since a properly articulated version of DCT does not have the consequences [(1)-(4)] listed above.[1] In this and the next installment I will offer an assessment of the seriousness of these four aspects of the Euthyphro problem for modern versions of divine command metaethics.
I will consider each of these four aspects of the Euthyphro problem individually. The essay will be broken into two parts. In this current installment, I will look at problems (1) and (2) and the next installment will examine problems (3) and (4).
Problem (1)
The contingency problem involves the assumption that it is possible for God to issue commands other than his actual commands (or, stated another way, that it is possible that God issues commands in some possible world(s) that he does not issue in some other possible world(s)). This assumption appears reasonable, at first glance, because God is omnipotent. Given his omnipotence, it seems that God is completely unconstrained; and so it is possible for him to issue any command whatsoever. But, as Edward Wierenga[2] has famously pointed out (along with many others after him), theists do not typically believe that God is completely unconstrained. It is reasonable to believe that God has certain essential characteristics and that, among these characteristics are features that constrain the kinds of motivations that God could experience.
A command is an intentional act of a rational agent. Given this, all commands have motives. If God has certain essential characteristics (or, in other words, an essential nature), this nature will constrain the sorts of motives that God can experience. If that is right (and it certainly seems to be), then it is false that God can issue any command whatsoever.
Wierenga draws our attention to the fact that, on theism, God is perfectly loving. A perfectly loving being, it is reasonable to assume, cannot experience a motive to harm a person who does not deserve to be harmed. If God has this characteristic essentially (as, again, theism implies), then there is no possible world in which God experiences motives to cause harm to a person who does not deserve it. For the very same reason, there is no possible world in which God experiences motives to command that we engage in such horrendous actions as torturing an infant gratuitously.
Thus, as Wierenga argues, theists have a reason to believe that God will not issue cruel commands, namely, the fact that God is perfectly loving. In what follows, I am going to call this argumentative maneuver (that is, the claim that God is constrained by his essentially loving nature), “the appeal to love” (abbrev. ATL)[3].  The appeal to love involves the claim that God’s commands are not wholly unconstrained, coupled with the equally important insight that the constraints that apply to God come from within his own nature. Importantly, ATL does not involve claiming that the constraints on God are reason-involving. In other words, the claim here is not that God is constrained to respond to reasons; rather it is that God has a motivational profile and that this motivational profile places limits on the kinds of things that God will do.
While ATL is relevant to both problem (1) and (2), it is very important to distinguish both the problems and the responses. ATL blunts the force of the contingency problem in virtue of the fact that God possesses his loving nature essentially, but I think it is less successful against the problem of counterintuitive consequences.
I say that ATL blunts the force of the contingency problem but, as it happens, the appeal to God’s loving nature is neither necessary nor sufficient to obviate the problem. To show this, I will describe a response that would completely remove the problem:
The contingency problem is completely eliminated if we claim that God has his nature essentially. Given that God’s motives are a manifestation of his essential characteristics, it follows that if he has the same characteristics in all possible worlds, he has the same kinds of motives in all possible worlds. And given the same motives, he will issue the same commands. In other words, the content of God’s character does not matter for the purposes of obviating the contingency problem; all that matters is that God has his nature essentially. Given the way that character grounds motives, if God’s character traits are essential characteristics, then he issues the same commands in all possible worlds.
It is important to see that ATL does not assert this; that is, it does not assert that God has his nature essentially. Rather, it claims that God is essentially loving. But this claim is consistent with the claim that there are other aspects of God’s nature that he possesses only contingently. Perhaps, for example, God is all-loving in all possible worlds, but in some possible worlds he prefers the color red to the color green whereas in others he prefers green to red. Perhaps in some worlds, God enjoys all types of human-produced noise, but in others he has a strong dislike for progressive rock; in some worlds, maybe, he is indifferent to temporal considerations concerning meals, in others he has strong feelings that breakfast must be consumed in the early morning. In asserting only that God is essentially loving, ATL leaves open the possibility that other aspects of God’s character are contingent and thus leaves open the possibility aspects of God’s character may give rise to different motives, and thus different commands, in different possible worlds.
ATL does imply that God’s commands are not wholly unconstrained. Given that God is loving in all possible worlds, it is false that there are possible worlds in which God issues a completely different set of commands in some possible world. But we now see that this does not entirely remove the contingency problem. So long as some aspect(s) of God’s nature is/are unconstrained, then his commands, at least to some extent, will be different in different possible worlds. Given this, DCT, even modified by ATL, will retain the implication that at least some more truths are contingent if it allows that some aspects of God’s nature are contingent.
A brief aside: One might think, at this juncture, that whatever contingency is implied by DCT, it will not be a serious problem. Recall that the most serious problem in this connection is that it appeared that DCT implied that all moral truths are contingent. We have seen that a properly articulated DCT need not have this implication. Perhaps we should not be bothered by the implication that, on DCT, some moral truths are still contingent. It is obvious that not all moral truths are contingent; it is less obvious that no moral truths are contingent. Thus, if DCT implies that some moral truths are contingent, this is not obviously a serious problem for the theory.
I mention this mostly to make sure that I my evaluation of the Euthyphro problem is as thorough as I can make it. I doubt that the contingency issue is the most pressing of the four aspects of the Euthyphro problem and so I will decline to examine the above suggestion any further. My interest, at this point, is to consider what must be added to DCT in order to completely eliminate the contingency problem, and so it is to that issue that I now return.
As I noted above, if God has a nature and has his nature essentially, then, since his motives will be a function of this nature, he will have the same kinds of motives in all possible worlds. Given that commands are motivated actions, this strongly suggests that God issues the same commands in all possible worlds. The assumption that God can issue commands other than his actual commands turns out to be based on a failure to appreciate the ways in which God’s nature informs and constrains his actions. While ATL does not assert this, there is nothing that prevents the defender of DCT from relying on this insight. So long as God has his nature essentially, it seems that DCT does not imply that morality is contingent.
Before moving on to problem (2), I want to make a couple of observations that will be very important to the evaluation of problems (2) – (4): First, the fact that God has an essential nature implies only that he experiences certain kinds of motives rather than others; it does not imply anything about what those motives are. If God’s nature is cruel, then he will experience cruel motives and issue cruel commands; if he is loving, then he will experience compassionate motives and issue compassionate commands.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, while the response that I have sketched to the contingency problem involves the claim that there are constraints on God’s commands, these claims about God’s nature (including ATL) do not assert that the constraints on God are reason-involving. In other words, the claim here is not that God is constrained to respond to reasons; rather it is that God has a motivational profile and that this motivational profile places limits on the kinds of things that God will do.
Problem (2)
The contingency problem is entirely eliminated if we assert
(EDN) Essential Divine Nature: God has his nature essentially.
But this will not resolve the counterintuitive possibilities problem since it is consistent with EDN that God’s nature is cruel or indifferent. A god with a cruel nature will command that we torture innocent children. We might think that ATL entirely resolves the problem, but that would be an error. To see why, note that the problem of counterintuitive possibilities is not merely the problem that God might command something cruel. In the above description of the problem, I mentioned four different kinds of counterintuitive possibilities:
(A) God might command that we perform some cruel act(s), such as the torture of an infant.
(B) God might command that we refrain from performing some compassionate act(s), such as helping  to feed people who are starving.
(C) God might command that we perform some seemingly neutral act(s), such as eating breakfast at 7:30 am.
(D) God might command that we refrain from performing some seemingly neutral act(s), such as eating dinner at 6:30 pm.
The appeal to love can only address possibilities of type (A) and (B). A perfectly loving God would neither command a cruel act nor command that we refrain from compassionate acts. However, ATL cannot address possibilities of type (C) and (D). That God is loving does not imply that he will not command that we eat breakfast at 7:30 am. At least, it is very unclear how such a command would be inconsistent with his love. It is wildly counterintuitive that it could be morally obligatory to eat breakfast at 7:30 am. But DCT seems to imply that it is possible that doing so is morally obligatory and ATL provides no reason to think that this is not a genuine implication.
How serious is this problem? Since I am not claiming here that, on DCT, it is possible that it is morally obligatory to doing horrible things, it may seem that the problem is not all that serious. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the problem posed by possibilities of type (C) and (D). Every day, hundreds of times a day, you and I engage in actions that are seemingly innocuous but are such that it would not be inconsistent for a loving God to command that we not do these things. We drink coffee without cream and sugar, we brush out teeth after breakfast but before leaving the house for the day, we read news articles online while we are eating breakfast, we watch sporting events on television, we tell jokes, we converse with friends and co-workers at work, etc., etc. It would not be inconsistent for a loving God to command that we refrain from performing any of these things. If God commanded that we not read news articles while we eat breakfast, then according to DCT, it would be morally wrong to read a news article during breakfast. But it is wildly implausible that it could be morally wrong to read a new article while one eats breakfast. The same can be said for all of the other items on my list and countless other seemingly innocuous actions that people engage in every day.
In a subsequent post, I will return to the issue of seemingly innocuous actions in connection to problem (4) (the problem of the normative impotence of divine commands) where I think it has a great deal more force. For now let me close this aspect of the inquiry by pointing out that the appeal to love does not eliminate all of the counterintuitive possibilities that appear to be consequences of DCT.


[1] This is only partially accurate. Usually such defenders focus on (1) – (3) to the neglect of (4). In addition, many such defenders confuse the distinct aspects of the problem (e.g., it is common to confuse the contingency problem with the arbitrariness problem). I will attempt to substantiate these claims in a future post.
[2] Wierenga, E. “A defensible divine command theory.” Nous 17.3 (1983): 387-407.
[3] Other philosophers and defenders of DCT have offered responses to the Euthyphro problem that are similar to Wierenga’s. I will be discussing some of these related responses in future installments of this series. It is perhaps worth pointing out that while this current essay does not involve a thorough discussion of each and every argument that defends DCT from Euthyphro-type concerns, my assessment of the seriousness of the Euthyphro problem for DCT is an overall assessment. That is, parts 5 and 6 of this series contain my all-things-considered assessment of the Euthyphro problem.

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 4: Why is it a dilemma?

In part I of this series, I showed that the Euthyphro dilemma consists of the following two 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.

I also argued that these two options are mutually exclusive and that, from this, we can infer 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.
A dilemma is a situation in which there are only two options available, we must choose one option or the other (i.e., we cannot take both), and where there is something problematic, difficult, or uncomfortable about making the choice. To show that the choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma, we need to show (a) that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive (i.e., that we cannot take both options); (b) that there is no other option to choose from (i.e., that (I) and (II) exhaust the possible options); and (c) that there is something problematic about making the choice. As I indicated, I have already shown, in part I, that that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive. In this post, I will accomplish tasks (b) and (c); that is, I will show that the options are exhaustive, and explain why the choice between (I) and (II) is problematic.
Before I get to those issues, I want to make a point of clarification about Claims 1 and 2.[1] It is not just that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it cannot be that the reason that he commands that we perform them is that they are obligatory. It is also the case that the reason that he commands that we perform them cannot be that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory. Similarly, it is not just that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they are obligatory, then it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. It is also true that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory, it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. These two points are fairly easy to grasp once we’ve grasped the logic of Claims 1 and 2. If the feature in virtue of which an action is morally obligatory is that God commands that we do it, then God’s reason for commanding that we do it cannot be that it has some other feature in virtue of which it is obligatory. And if the reason that God commands that we perform some action is that it has some feature(s) in virtue of which it is obligatory, then it cannot be that what makes it obligatory is that God commands that we do it (since, in this case, the what makes it obligatory is that it has the feature(s) that also provides God with a reason to command it). So, we can re-word Claims 1 and 2 to account for these points as follows:
Claim 1′: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which 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 either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are morally obligatory.
More Options?
I will offer two arguments in support of the claim that there are no options in addition to (I) and (II). The first concerns the kind of factors that can be normative reasons and is, since it relies on disputed claims about normative reasons, more controversial. The second consideration is based on a very natural assumption about the connection between God and morality and is, given the naturalness of this assumption, less controversial. Since the first argument is more controversial, the case I will make that (I) and (II) exhaust the options will not stand or fall on this argument. I mention and describe the argument because I think it is a good one, but I am not here basing my case on it.
Before I get to either argument, let’s consider what an option other than (I) and (II) would need to say. Given the mutual exclusivity of options (I) and (II), any option other than (I) or (II) must involve two aspects: first, it must assert that the reason that God commands a morally obligatory action is not that it is obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory); second, it must assert that morally obligatory actions are not morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them. Given this, the basic outline of a possible third option immediately presents itself, namely,

(III) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that the actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory).

As stated, option (III) is a formula for generating more specific additional options. The phrase ‘something other than’ appears twice in (III) and there are an indefinite number of descriptive phrases that can be plugged in to each space to generate unique options. For example:

(III-U) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that they maximize utility and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

(III-K) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that the action involves treating humanity as an end-in-itself and not merely as a means, and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

I strongly suspect that (III-U) and (III-K) are not genuine options because I strongly suspect that the fact that some action makes God happy is not a reason for God to command that we perform it. Remember that I am using ‘reason’ in the normative sense. That some action makes God happy might be a motive for someone to command that we perform the action. But that it is a motive does not entail that it is a normative reason. For reasons, some of which I have mentioned in parts II and III of this series, I think that a consideration such as that an action makes God happy is not a normative reason that favors commanding the action. Here, then, is a consideration in favor of thinking that there is no genuine third option: On the assumption that actions are obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands, the only normative reason that God could have for commanding that we perform some action is that the action is morally obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory).
If I am right about this, then there is no third option at all. Any alleged third option will, as I’ve indicated, assert that God’s reason for commanding that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that they are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory). But there are no such other reasons. Thus, there can be no third option. Again, my conclusion that there is no third option will not be affected even if this argument does not succeed since there is another consideration that shows that (I) and (II) exhaust the options.
A very natural assumption about God makes a third option unavailable. This natural assumption is that God commands all and only morally obligatory actions. Whatever is morally obligatory, God commands that we do, and whatever God commands that we do is morally obligatory. God does not command us to do anything that is not obligatory and there is nothing that is obligatory that God does not command that we do. This assumption does not include any claim about ontological priority, only that the actions that are commanded by God are the very same actions that are morally obligatory.
If this assumption is correct, then the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. But the connection is stronger than this. It is not just that these predicates happen to be (or are contingently) co-extensive, as ‘The highest mountain on Earth’ is (contingently) co-extensive with ‘Mt. Everest.’ There is a necessary connection between the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God. We can capture this necessity as follows: In every possible world in which God issues commands, the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. This is not the same as saying that the predicates are necessarily co-extensive. And, indeed, I don’t think that they are necessarily co-extensive since I think that there are possible worlds in which God does not exist but in which moral properties do exist. But even an atheist can agree that in any possible world in which God does exist, he commands us to do all and only morally obligatory actions. Let’s call this claim,

(GC-M): In all possible worlds in which God exists, God commands all and only morally obligatory actions (i.e., in all such worlds, the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive).

It is very difficult to see how (GC-M) can be true unless either the reasons for God’s commands are that the commanded actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory) (i.e., option (I)) or that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of God’s commands (i.e., option (II)). The only other possible way for (GC-M) to be true is for there to be some feature that, necessarily, all and only morally obligatory actions have, the presence of which feature is the reason that God commands that we perform them. But this seems highly unlikely.
Therefore, if necessarily the actions that God commands are the same as the morally obligatory actions, then (I) and (II) are exhaustive.
Why the choice is problematic
I will now turn to the problematic nature of deciding between options (I) and (II). There are two reasons why a choice between two options might be a dilemma. It could be that both options are good or have good implications and we don’t want to give up something good by only taking one of two good options. Or it could be that both options are bad and we don’t want to have to accept the bad implications or consequences of either option. The Euthyphro dilemma is the latter type of dilemma. Both (I) and (II) have problematic implications.
If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command. This is problematic since it has seemed to many theists (and some non-theists) that all moral properties are dependent on God.
The problem for option (II) is that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then, since God is omnipotent, his commands are wholly unconstrained. He could command any action whatsoever, and since deontic moral value[2]  does not exist prior to his commands, it seems that he has no reason to command one thing rather than another. Indeed, he could command something horrible, such as the gratuitous torture of an infant, and, on option (II), this horrible action would be morally obligatory. But no command can make the torture of an infant morally obligatory.
I am going to call the problem described in the previous paragraph the “Euthyphro problem.” As stated, the Euthyphro problem is multifaceted; there are actually at least four inter-related issues that are mentioned in that paragraph. They are

(1) The contingency problem

It is possible for God to command anything whatsoever. Given this, no matter what commands God actually issues, it is possible that he issues a completely different set of commands (in the sense that, in some possible world, he issues this other set of commands). So, since on option (II), morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we do them, no matter which actions are actually obligatory, it is possible that a completely different of commands is obligatory. Thus, in some possible world, a wholly different set of actions are morally obligatory than are obligatory in the actual world. This is problematic because it seems that at least some moral claims are necessarily true. In particular, it seems that there are some actions such that their deontic moral status is a necessary feature. However, if option (II) is correct, then it seems that no action has its moral features necessarily. For any action, whatever its actual deontic status, it is possible for it to have a different deontic status.

(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem

The contingency problem that, on option (II), all actions have their moral properties contingently. A related problem (and a consequence) is that among the possibilities are some that are wildly counterintuitive. The above description of what I’ve called the Euthyphro problem contains an example: it is possible that the gratuitous torture of infants is morally obligatory rather than wrong. But there are other possibilities. It is possible that something morally laudatory, such as giving money to the needy is morally wrong. It is possible that something morally permissible, such as brushing your teeth three times a day, is morally wrong. And it is possible that something morally permissible, such as eating breakfast at 7:30, is morally obligatory.

(3) The arbitrariness problem

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.

(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

To summarize: the problem for option (II) is that it implies that morality is contingent, it has counterintuitive consequences, it implies that morality is arbitrary, and it claims that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.
The choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma because, if we choose option (I), we have to accept that moral properties exist prior to God’s commands, and, if we choose option (II), we have to accept the implications described above.
Can we escape the dilemma?
If we believe that God does not exist, then we do not face the dilemma since we can deny that God issues commands (and thus deny both that God’s reasons for his commands are that actions are morally obligatory and that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of God’s commands). If we believe that God does exist but that he does not issue any commands, then, precisely because we believe that God does not issue commands, we do not face the dilemma. But if we believe that God exists and that he issues commands, we must choose between options (I) and (II). There are many theists who will be happy to choose option (I). Such theists will assert that moral properties exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. There are different ways of fleshing out such a view, and I will not discuss the various versions of theism that are consistent with option (I). But many theists are reluctant to concede that moral properties are independent of divine commands. After all, one traditional theistic belief is that God is the source of everything that exists. On this view, moral properties must have their source in God. The Euthyphro dilemma is most problematic for those who hold such views. Such theists face the choice of giving up the claim that God is the source of everything or accepting implications (1) – (4).
On the other hand, there are defenders of option (II) who claim that it does not have any problematic consequences. In particular, such people claim, option (II) does not have the kinds of consequences that are typically mentioned in discussions of the Euthyphro dilemma. In my next post in this series, I will give my assessment of whether option (II) has the consequences I listed above (i.e., (1) – (4)). To give a brief preview, I will argue that problems (3) and (4) are much more serious and difficult to resolve than problems (1) and (2). I will also argue that problems (3) and (4) definitively show that metaethical divine command theory is false.
 


[1] If you are interested, my reason for clarifying claims 1 and 2 has to do with the fact that statements about an agent’s reasons are, plausibly, referentially opaque. (If you have questions about referential opacity or how it is relevant in the context of reasons statements, please let me know in the comments.)
[2] Deontic moral value is the value that an action has in virtue of which we ought to perform it or refrain from performing it. So, an action’s deontic status is just its status as obligatory or wrong or permissible (I do not mean to imply that these are the only three deontic statuses, there are others; supererogatory, for example.)
 
 

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_borderMorality does not depend on the existence of God

Some people believe (or claim to believe) that if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral truths (e.g., truths about what we are morally obligated to do or refrain from doing). This claim is false as the following argument shows:
(1) Torturing a child causes the child to experience severe suffering.
(2) Torturing a child violates the child’s consent (that is, it is not possible for the child to rationally consent to being tortured).
(3) That torturing a child causes severe suffering is a reason to not torture children.
(4) That torturing a child violates the child’s consent is a reason to not torture children.
Thus,
(5) There are reasons to not torture children
(6) Torturing a child would cause severe suffering even if God does not exist.
(7) Torturing a child would violate the child’s consent even if God does not exist.
Thus,
(8) There would be reasons to not torture children even if God does not exist.
(9) These reasons are so powerful as to be overriding (that is, they are stronger than and cancel the force of any other reasons that might exist that count in favor of torture).
(10) These reasons also concern the welfare and autonomy of persons.
Thus,
(11) There are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not torture children, and that exist even if God does not exist.
(12) If there are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not engage in some action, then this action is morally wrong.
Therefore,
(13) There are some actions that are morally wrong even if God does not exist.

bookmark_borderDo our reasons depend on our desires?

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
I have been writing about reasons, what they are, and what they do. This is an important topic because, as I have argued, reasons play a central role in issues of morality and the meaning of life. The reason for talking about such issues in a philosophy of religion blog is that many religious apologists have argued that, if there is no god, there are no objective moral truths and that if there is no god, life is meaningless. Both of these assertions are false but understanding why they are false requires a good understanding of the nature of reasons and the connection reasons have to morality and meaning.
In a previous post, I argued that at least some reasons are objective. One consideration that is commonly relied on to argue that reasons must be subjective is that reasons are dependent on desires. David Hume famously said, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[1] Exactly what Hume intended to be saying here about the nature of reasons is a matter of some controversy. He has, however, been widely interpreted as claiming that reason is only a matter of selecting the best means of satisfying our ends. On such a view, reason can recommend no ends. We have our ends on the basis of our desires and passions, but these ends are not rationally evaluable. We have reasons only once we have chosen an end, and then the reasons that we have are to do the things that effectively satisfy that end. This view, regardless of whether it is Hume’s real view, is consistent with a position that I have previously called the Desire-Based Reasons Thesis (DBR):
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, Φ, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that Φ-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
I strongly suspect that DBR is false and I want to provide some examples that serve to undermine it. First, though, I think we should acknowledge the intuitive appeal of DBR. DBR fits in very nicely with a certain conception of rationality that is often called “means-ends-rationality.” This conception can be well illustrated via the following example:
Pizza: Sue wants to have a pizza delivered to her house. Given that calling the local pizza place, Pizza Yurt, and ordering a pizza will efficiently promote the satisfaction of Sue’s desire, Sue has a reason to call Pizza Yurt to order a pizza. Further, she only has this reason given that she has this desire. A person who does not have the desire for pizza to be delivered to their home does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery.
This seems right, at least at first glance. Despite this appearance, I will later argue that the above account of why Sue has the reasons she does is completely wrong. Now, though, I want to acknowledge the way in which the account is intuitively appealing. It seems true that anyone who does not want a pizza does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery. Thus, the natural conclusion is that Sue’s reason for calling Pizza Yurt is that she wants to have a pizza delivered. Certainly, if we assume (i) that Sue wants a pizza, (ii) that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying this desire, and (iii) that Sue knows that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying her desire, it seems clear that if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational.
It is important to note that we now have before us two different claims: One is that Sue’s reason to call Pizza Yurt is dependent on her desire; the second is that, given this desire plus her belief that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient way of satisfying that desire, if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational. I think that the second claim is true, but the first is false.
It is important to distinguish claims about what reasons an agent has from claims about the agent’s rationality. These claims are different as can be revealed by a common example:
Snake/Rope: I am walking through the desert; I look down at my feet and see a snake-like object coiled in the path immediately next to where I am walking. I immediately form the judgment that there is a snake in my path. My pulse quickens, I immediately feel fear, and quickly leap away. In reality, the object is not a snake but a coiled length of rope.
Now, let’s ask whether I had any reason to fear and whether I had any reason to jump away. The natural response to such questions is that, given that it was not a snake, I had no reason to fear. Similarly, my daughter has no reason to fear the non-existence monsters under the bed even though she firmly believes in them. Further, I had no reason to jump away in fear since there was nothing to be afraid of. However, given that I believed that there was a snake on my path, my fear-response and avoidance behavior was completely rational. The Snake/Rope example shows that we can behave rationally even when we are not responding to reasons.
In this post, I will be making claims about reasons rather than rationality. In particular, I will argue that reasons are not dependent on desires. I will not be defending any view about rationality. However, the view that I find attractive is that, as Derek Parfit has put it, our reasons are provided by the facts, what is rational for us to do depends on our beliefs.
While DBR seems to make sense of Sue’s reasons in the Pizza example, I think that this appearance is deceiving and that a proper understanding of Sue’s reasons show that they are not at all dependent on her desires. To understand why, I need to explain why I doubt DBR. Let’s look at three cases that present possible counterexamples to DBR.
(1) Gin/Petrol
This example comes from Bernard Williams who is a defender of DBR [2]. Williams’ view is that the reasons that an agent has are dependent on the agent’s motivational set. Your motivational set includes your desires, intentions, positive attitudes, etc., (henceforth, I will use ‘desire’ to refer to all of these kinds of states) which have the tendency to motivate you to act. Importantly, this entails that the existence of a reason for an agent requires the presence of an appropriate desire.
Williams presents the following example as a reason to amend his view: Suppose Jim is sitting at a table on which is a bottle of clear liquid. Jim wants to have a gin and tonic and believes that the stuff in the glass on the table is gin. Suppose, though, that the stuff in the bottle is not gin but gasoline. Does Jim have a reason to mix the stuff in the bottle with tonic and consume the concoction? Williams points out that we are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems natural to say that since the stuff in the glass will make Jim sick, he does not have a reason to drink it and has a reason to not drink it. On the other hand, if Jim does drink the gasoline, there is a natural explanation for why he did so: Jim thought that the stuff in the bottle was gin.
Williams’ conclusion is that we shouldn’t think that the fact that we would have an explanation for why Jim would drink the stuff entails that Jim would have a reason to do so. In fact, according to Williams, even though he believes that the stuff is gin, Jim does not have a reason to drink it. This requires that Williams amend his view. He does so by claiming that an element, d, of an agent’s motivational set will not provide a reason to the agent if d is based on a false belief (see Williams, 293).
Williams is right, in my view, that Jim does not have a reason to drink the stuff in the bottle despite the fact that he has a desire to drink it.  However, I think that the example poses a bigger problem for his view than he realized. The problem is that it is difficult to square the claim that desires that are based on false beliefs do not generate reasons with the view that desires generate reasons.
Williams’ view seems to be that some desires generate reasons and some do not. But, having asserted that all reasons depend, for their existence, on desires, his view provides no basis for claiming that some desires do not generate reasons. Let’s call the capacity to generate reasons, which, on Williams’ view, at least some desires have, “reason-generating power” (or “rg-power” for short). On Williams’ view desires have rg-power unless those desires that are based on false beliefs. But what is it about this class of desires that makes them impotent to generate reasons? Why would a false belief interfere with a desire’s rg-power? Why does a desire lose its reason-generating capacity just because it is based on a false belief? Williams provides no answer.
This example does not refute DBR, but despite Williams response, I think it should cast some doubt on the thesis. Unless we have some basis for thinking that desires that are based on false beliefs cannot generate reasons, the Gin/Petrol example suggests that desires do not generate reasons.
(2) Agony
This example is inspired by Parfit’s Agony Argument.[3]
Suppose Sally want to experience excruciating pain. She realizes that stabbing herself in the eye with a metal fork will satisfy this desire. Does Sally therefore have a reason to stab herself in the eye with a fork? I don’t think she does. The fact that Sally will experience horrendous and needless suffering is a reason for her to not stab herself in the eye with a fork regardless of her desires.
Suppose that Ryan does not have a desire to experience excruciating pain but also does not want to avoid it. Does Ryan have a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a metal fork? On a view according to which an agent only has reasons to engage in actions that satisfy his desires, Ryan does not have such a reason. This is implausible. Ryan has a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a fork (and to avoid any activity that will cause horrible suffering) regardless of whether he has any desire to avoid pain/agony.
(3) Radio
This example is an adaptation of one originally provided by Warren Quinn in his paper, “Putting Rationality in its Place.” [4]
Suppose you have a friend, Tom, who engages in the following behavior: When Tom enters a room with a radio that is turned off, he immediately turns the radio on. He does not tune the radio to a specific station; he seems content merely to have the radio on, even if it is playing static. Tom does this consistently. When you ask him why he does this, he says that he wants radios to be turned on. He does not cite a desire to hear music or sound of any kind. He merely says that he wants that radios are turned on.
Does the presence of such a desire make Tom’s behavior reasonable?  I think it is natural to say that Tom’s answer to the question of why he is always turning on radios makes his behavior seems even more unreasonable since the desire itself is irrational. Quinn’s point, I take it, is that the mere presence of this desire cannot give Tom a reason for turning on radios. What would rationalize Tom’s behavior, according to Quinn, is Tom’s belief that by turning on radios, he is achieving something good. If Tom was turning on the radio to listen to good music or to hear the news, this would make his behavior reasonable. But the mere presence of a desire that radios be turned on does nothing to make this action reasonable.
 
These three examples, taken together, cast a great deal of doubt on the DBR thesis. I will not claim that they effectively refute the thesis, but merely that they strongly suggest that it is false. There are many other arguments against DBR. If you are interested, I highly recommend Jonathan Dancy’s book, Practical Reality, which mounts a sustained criticism of DBR.
Let me return, briefly, to the Pizza example. If we reject DBR, how are we to account for Sue’s reasons? More importantly, if we reject DBR, how are we to account for the fact that Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but a person who has no desire for pizza (apparently) does not have such a reason?
Here is my answer: Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but this reason is not generated by and does not depend on her desire to have a pizza delivered to her home. What gives Sue a reason to call Pizza Yurt, I believe, is the following collection of facts: Sue is hungry, eating pizza is a good way of satisfying that hunger, Sue likes the taste of pizza, and calling Pizza Yurt is an efficient way of getting a pizza delivered to her home. What about those who lack a reason to call for delivery? For such people, it (currently) will not be good to have a pizza. Either such people are not currently hunger or do not enjoy the taste of pizza or else having a pizza delivered would in some other way be bad.
What reasons we have depends only on what is good and what is bad. It does not depend on our desires.
 


[1] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (2.3.3.6)
[2] Williams B., “Internal and External Reasons” reprinted in Shafer-Landau and Cuneo (eds.) Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[3] In Parfit, D. On What Matters, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See pp. 73-82 for Parfit’s Agony Argument.
[4] Quinn, W. “Putting Rationality in its Place” in his Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 

bookmark_borderThe sense in which pain is objectively bad

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
It is not uncommon for defenders of the objectivity of moral value to point to the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. But it is also not uncommon that the claims that pleasure is objectively good and pain is objectively bad to be ambiguous and thus misunderstood (see, for example, this Twitter thread from Sam Harris and this video response to Harris’s argument). I think such ambiguity and misunderstanding can be avoided if we are careful and so I want to carefully explain the sense in which pleasure can be thought to be objectively good and pain objectively bad.
Good, Bad, and Reasons
The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have single meanings; they can be used in several distinct ways to indicate different things. For example, we might say that some object is good in the sense that it satisfies some set of criteria, as when we say of a particular bloom on a rose bush that it is a good specimen of its variety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can also be used to merely express one’s own approval or disapproval, as for example when we say something like “This wine isn’t very good” merely as a means of expressing our dissatisfaction with the selection. But neither of these senses has any direct relevance to morality. The morally significant sense of these terms is normative in character. The normative sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is equivalent to what Derek Parfit calls the reason-implying sense. In this sense, something is good when there are reasons to want it, pursue it, preserve it, etc.; something is bad when there are reasons to want that it not occur, to avoid it, etc. A more careful account of what Parfit means by good and bad in the reason-implying sense is as follows:
To say that something Φ (an object, event, state of affairs, state of mind, etc.) is good in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond positively to Φ (i.e, to want that Φ occur, to try to bring Φ about, to preserve Φ, to choose Φ, etc.).  To say that something Φ is bad in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond negatively to Φ (i.e., to want that Φ not occur, to try to prevent it from coming about, to try to eliminate it, to avoid it, etc.). [Parfit discusses this sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in volume one of On What Matters (see esp. pp 38-42).]
It is in this sense that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The nature of pleasure gives us reasons to pursue it and to want that it occur. The nature of pain gives us reasons to avoid it and want that it not occur. Importantly, this does not imply that we can never have reasons to avoid pleasure and want that it not occur or reasons to pursue pain and want that it occur. This is because something can have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something is intrinsically good when we have reasons to want it for its own sake. Something is instrumentally good when we have reasons to want it, not for its own sake, but because of the things it brings about. Something is instrumentally bad when we have reasons to want that it not occur because of what it brings about. When we want pleasure, at least typically, we want it for its own sake. We don’t want pleasure, again typically, because of the effects that pleasure has; we want it just because of what it is. Since the nature of pleasure gives us reasons to want it for its own sake, pleasure is intrinsically good. Money, on the other hand, is good because it is useful, i.e., the goodness of money consists in the fact that with money we can acquire other things that are good. We have reasons to pursue money because it allows us to achieve these other good things.
The Badness of Pain
Pain is intrinsically bad. It is a bit odd to say that it is for its own sake that we want that pain not occur. Perhaps more intuitively, we can say that pain is intrinsically bad because its nature gives us reason to want the cessation of pain for its own sake. Nonetheless, at least in some circumstances, pain is instrumentally good. Pain plays an important role in the motivational architecture of biological creatures; it motivates us to avoid damage to our bodies. Because pain has this effect, we have reasons to want that pain occur. This is shown via the phenomenon of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). People born with this condition do not feel physical pain and as a result, many of them are seriously injured, some fatally, in childhood. This example shows that it is bad if a person cannot feel pain. So, due to the role that pain plays in protecting us from bodily harm, pain is instrumentally good. Notice that the proper conclusion here is that the nature of pain gives us reasons to not want to feel pain but that we also have reasons to want that we can feel pain. This is not a contradiction.
There are other reasons that we might want pain. Pain is sometimes an indication of healthy physical developments, as in the case of the pain associated with exercise. If you go running and experience no physical discomfort, then chances are good that you will not be making much progress toward your health goals. Intense or prolonged experiences of pain can also result in the release of endorphins into the body, which can induce a state of euphoria. When we want pain because of its association with progression toward our health goals or for the euphoric effects it leads to, we want pain not for its own sake but because of its effects. So, the fact that some people sometimes have reason to want pain does not conflict with the claim that the nature of pain gives us reason to want that it not occur. Notice that when pain is instrumentally good, our reasons are not to pursue pain for its own sake, but to pursue things that bring about or are associated with pain. When a runner goes for a long run pursuing a runner’s high, she is not pursuing pain for its own sake. What she wants, for its own sake, is the euphoria that accompanies the rush of endorphins.
Though the reasons run in opposite directions, there is no contradiction in saying that, in some circumstances, there are both reasons to pursue pain and reasons to avoid it. Think, by way of analogy, about making an important decision, for example, whether you should move across the country to take a new job. When you carefully consider what you should do, you will weigh the factors that count in favor of moving (higher salary, e.g., or a more rewarding position) against the factors that point in the opposite direction (not wanting to be far from friends and family, e.g.). So, we can have reasons for some course of action (or for having some desire) and reasons that count against that same course of action (or against having that same desire). The upshot is that there is no contradiction involved in claiming both that there are reasons to avoid pain and also that there are, in some circumstances, reasons to not avoid pain (and maybe even reason to pursue it). Nonetheless, it remains true that, since pain is intrinsically bad, we always have reasons to want that it not occur and to avoid it. It is just that, in some circumstances, these reasons are overridden by other reasons that we have to pursue things that are painful.
Is the badness of pain objective?
If the badness of pain is subjective, then the badness of pain constitutively depends on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of a subject or subjects. And if the badness of pain is objective, then it does not constitutively depend on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of subjects. To say that something, F, constitutively depends on X is to say that X at least partly constitutes F. In other words, part of what it is to be F is to be X. Suppose we think, plausibly, that our taste preferences are subjective. Then part of what it is for something to taste good is for a subject or subjects to have certain kinds of reactions, desires, or attitudes toward it. [Michael Huemer, whose work introduced me to this notion, has an excellent discussion of constitutive dependence (and how it differs from other kinds of dependence) in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, which I highly recommend.]  For the remainder of this article, when I talk about dependence, I will be talking about constitutive dependence.
Since we are talking about the reason-implying sense of ‘bad,’ if the badness of pain is subjective then the reason we have to want that pain not occur depends on the goals interests, beliefs, desires, or attitudes of subjects. Is this true? Let’s begin answering this question with the following observation: It is certainly not the case that the qualitative character of pain is subjective. By ‘qualitative character’ I mean to indicate the feeling of pain, considered in isolation of its causes, effects, or value. What I am saying is that the qualitative character of pain is completely independent of any person’s beliefs, desires, attitudes, interests, or judgments about it (or anything else, for that matter). When you stub your toe, you have an experience that has a certain qualitative feel to it. That experience, which we call pain, would exist even if no person (including yourself) had any beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. about it. No person’s beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. in any way makes up or constitutes the experience. So, the experience is completely objective.
[A subtle complication. A painful experience is always an experience of a subject (it is my pain or your pain or her pain, etc.). But this does not make the existence of pain subjective in the relevant sense. This is because the conscious experiences of a subject are still objective in the sense that they are not dependent on the goals, interests, desires, etc. of subjects. If I am in pain (or in pleasure, for that matter), my pain does not depend for its existence on the beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. of any subject. States of consciousness (which are states of subjects) are objective in the relevant sense.]
So what about the claim that pain is objectively bad in the reasons-implying sense?  If the badness of pain is subjective, this means that the reason that we have to want that pain not occur (and to avoid it, want it to cease, etc.) depends for its existence on the beliefs, desires, goals, interests, or judgments of subjects. This seems implausible. That I have a reason to avoid pain depends on the qualitative character of pain. The nature of the experience gives me a reason to want that it not occur. This seems true regardless of my (or anyone else’s) desires. Even if I wanted it to occur, for its own sake, this would not change the fact that I have reasons to want that it not occur.
Suppose you meet a person who tells you that he wants to jab a metal fork into his eyeball. When asked, he admits that he expects that doing so will cause tremendous pain and that he will intensely dislike the experience, but nonetheless he still wants to do it. Should we say about such a person that he has no reason to not stab himself in the eye with a metal fork? Should we say that he has a reason to stab himself? It seems to me that the answer to both questions is no. Since stabbing himself in the eye will cause intense pain, he has a strong reason to refrain from doing so. And he has this reason regardless of what he wants.
There are philosophers who argue that all reasons depend on desires (or desire-like mental states). Such philosophers defend a version of what I have previously referred to as the DBR (desire-based reasons) thesis. This is not the place for a full examination of the DBR thesis. In a future article, I will offer some reasons to think that the DBR thesis is false. For now, I will only note that, if DBR is true, then we only have reasons to avoid pain if we have some desire the satisfaction of which requires (or is furthered by) our avoidance of pain. If DBR is true, we have no reason to avoid pain for its own sake.
One final point: The claim that goodness and badness in the reason-implying sense (which is the morally relevant sense) are objective is just the claim that there are reasons to respond positively to pleasure (by wanting that it occur, pursuing it, etc.) and reasons to respond negatively to pain (by wanting that it not occur, avoiding it, etc.) and that these reasons do not depend on the goals, interests, desires, beliefs, or judgments of any subject. The existence of such reasons does not seem to have any bizarre metaphysical or epistemological consequences.

bookmark_borderOn reasons and what they do

This post is something of a follow-up to my recent post about Sean Carroll’s views concerning meaning and purpose. As I indicated at the end of that post, I used some concepts and made some claims that require development and defense and I promised that I would provide that development and defense in a future post. The current post is part of the fulfillment of that promise. I hope that I can clarify some of the claims I made in that post, specifically claims concerning reasons. I also hope the remarks I make here can serve as a basis for a more robust discussion, about not only meaning but also rationality and morality, here at the Secular Outpost.
As I indicated, most of what I have to say concerns the nature of reasons and their role in justification. Let me start by providing the quote that I took from Volume 2 of On What Matters by Derek Parfit:

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

I want to explain what Parfit means when he talks about object-given reasons. I would also like to defend the claims he makes about such reasons (and Parfit’s meta-normative view more generally), but the defense will have to wait for a future post. It is enough if I am able to make his view about meaning and reasons more clear.
A reason is a factor that counts in favor. There are factors that count in favor of beliefs (commonly called epistemic reasons) and factors that count in favor of decisions, desires, and actions (commonly called practical reasons). When we say of some factor, that it is a reason, we say that it tends to favor the belief, decision, desire, or etc. Importantly, for this discussion, we are talking about reasons pro tanto, i.e. factors that, taken by themselves, count in favor but which, when considered in the complete context of all relevant factors, might themselves be overridden. In other words, when we say that something is a reason, we say merely that it counts in favor, not that overall and all things considered, we should respond to this reason. Any conclusion about what we should do, want, believe, etc. depends on more complete consideration and weighing of all relevant factors. For the purposes of the present discussion, we are not engaged in drawing conclusions about what we should want (or do, etc.), i.e., what we have overall reason to want (or do, etc.), but only what counts in favor of wanting (or doing, etc.).
The above concerns normative reasons. Normative reasons are contrasted with motivating reasons (or motives). A motivating reason is a factor that serves as the basis for an agent’s decision (to act, desire, approve of, etc.). Importantly, not all factors that serve as the basis of an agent’s decision really do count in favor of that decision. In other words, it is possible for agents to get things wrong; an agent can believe, of some fact, that it counts in favor of her decision and yet it not be the case that the fact does count in favor of that decision. We can make the same point by saying that not all motivating reasons are normative reasons. Sometimes the factors that we believe count in favor of our decisions really do count in favor of them (in such cases, our motivating reasons are also normative). However, often the factors that we believe count in favor actually do not count in favor (and hence our motivating reasons are not normative). For the remainder of this essay (and in general), when I use the word ‘reason,’ I am talking about normative reasons. When I want to talk about motivating reasons in a context in which I do not want to assume that they are also normative, I will call them motives (or motivating reasons). I think that this linguistic practice is an important one that we all ought to adopt as a means of eliminating ambiguity. Discussing and thinking about reasons is notoriously difficult and fraught with potential intellectual dead ends. To facilitate a more robust and fruitful discussion, we need to be as clear as we can. So,

Reason means normative reason. A reason is a factor that counts in favor (of some act, desire, belief, reaction, emotion, etc.).

Motive means motivating reason. A motive is a factor that an agent believes counts in favor (and thus serves as the basis of action, desire, belief, etc.). When an agent has such a belief and this belief guides her decisions, the factor is a motive for her.

One of the most important things that reasons do is justify; i.e., a reason tends to provide justification for actions, beliefs, desires, etc. I am going to talk about justification in the context of practical reasons, but most of things that I say about the practical sphere transfer to the epistemic sphere. An important aspect of justification involves universalizability. When one of my actions is justified, then it is based on some reason(s). Further, if my action is justified, then if some other person acted in the same manner in appropriately similar circumstances, this person would also be equally justified (i.e., justified to the same extent that I am justified) in acting in this way. And the factor that counts in favor of my action would also count in favor of this other person’s action. This point generalizes to all persons. So, the reason(s) that justifies my behavior is universalizable in this sense: it counts in favor not just of my action but of any similar action performed by any other person who is in circumstances similar to mine. [Important: the fact that some reason justifies my action does not mean that I am obligated to engage in that action, nor does it mean that I ought to do it. Just as with the case of reasons, I am here talking about pro tanto justification rather than overall justification.]
Let’s look at a simple example to see how these concepts work in context. Suppose that I am walking down a city street and encounter a homeless person who asks for my assistance. Suppose further that I decide to give him $20 and that I do this because I believe that he needs help. My motive for giving him the money is that he needs help. Let’s grant, at least for the sake of this discussion, that he really does need help and that the fact that he needs help counts in favor of giving him $20. If so, then my motive is also a normative reason. This entails that my action is justified (at least to some extent) and that any other person who was in similar circumstances (that is, with this man or any similarly situated homeless person) would be equally justified in giving a person in need of help $20. And the factor that counts in favor of my act of giving $20 would also count in favor of any other person’s similar act.
When Parfit talks about object-given reasons, he is talking about facts about objects that count in favor. [Importantly, ‘object’ here is given a wide meaning such that states, such as the state of being in pain, or of experiencing pleasure, count as objects.] A good example is suffering. Suffering has features that provide us with reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in avoidance behavior. These features are intrinsic to the object in question, e.g., suffering in this case. Thus, the nature of suffering gives us object-given reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in actions that enable us to avoid it. [Again, this is not the same as claiming that, overall, we always should avoid suffering; only that, in all cases, there are factors that count in favor of avoiding suffering.]
Some moral philosophers believe that there are no practical object-given reasons. According to subjectivism, all practical reasons for a person are dependent on features of that person’s motivational set. Subjectivists typically hold a desire-based view of reasons (DBR). On this view (famously attributed to David Hume and defended in the twentieth century by Bernard Williams, among others), our reasons are generated by our desires. I have reason to do what is necessary for (or at least the most effective way of) satisfying my desires. More carefully, we can articulate this view as follows:
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, F, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that F-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
If DBR is true, then there can be no (practical) object-given reasons to care about (or do, or want) anything since all (practical) reasons would be subjective. ‘Subjective’ means ‘dependent on the subject.’ To say that some feature, f, is subjective is to say that f constitutively depends on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of a subject or subjects. To say that some feature, f, is objective is to say that f does NOT constitutively depend on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of any subject or subjects. A subject, in this context, is a being that is a bearer of conscious states, such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and attitudes. So, if DBR is true, then all (practical) reasons are subjective since whether I have a reason constitutively depends on my desires.
I mention DBR here only to contrast it with Parfit’s view so that the most significant aspect of Parfit’s view comes to the foreground. Importantly, on Parfit’s view, all normative reasons are object-given. In addition, his view implies that desire-based reasons are not normative. Saying that a reason is object-given is another way of saying that it is not desire-based. Thus, to say that there are object-given reasons to care about something is to say that there are factors, intrinsic to the object, that count in favor of our caring about this thing and that in no way depend on our (or any other person’s) desires. If there are such object-given reasons, then they are objective and thus apply to all rational agents, regardless of our goals, interests, desires, or attitudes.

bookmark_borderTaking Atheism Ignorantly

Here is something that appeared recently in an article by one Michael Egnor on a site called “Evolution News.” He advocates taking atheism seriously.
https://evolutionnews.org/2017/11/taking-atheism-seriously/
If you look closely you will see that the article has nothing directly to do with evolution. This really is not surprising since, despite its name, “Evolution News” is not a site containing news and information about evolutionary science. It is a creationist site. Maybe we atheists should start a site called “Creationism Triumphs over Godless Evolution” and fill it with anti-creationist articles.
Be that as it may, Mr. Egnor, in the midst of blaming atheists for the Sutherland Falls massacre, and worldwide atrocities in general, nevertheless generously offers to set us atheists straight by showing us what we really believe. I have addressed the canard that atheism is responsible for the atrocities of communists in great detail elsewhere, so I will not repeat those points here.
https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2015/04/27/not-this-again/
Here I will simply take Mr. Egnor’s offer to enlighten me about the consequences of my own beliefs at face value, being, as I am, always happy to defer to one who is wiser. Here is his statement:
“The problem that atheists have with reflection on their own beliefs is that they don’t…take their own atheism seriously.
So, let’s do it for them. If atheism is true, the following are true:

  1. There is no God.
  2. Nothing caused everything for no reason.
  3. There is no ultimate purpose for anything.
  4. There is no afterlife.
  5. Human beings are just animals.
  6. There is no objective morality (follows necessarily from 1, 2, 3, 5).
  7. There is no ultimate accountability (follows necessarily from 1-6).
  8. There is no free will (follows from 5).
  9. There is no guilt or innocence in a moral sense (follows from 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8).

I’m sure you can add a few more necessary items to the Atheist Nicene Creed.”
Thanks, Mr. Egnor! Still, if someone is claiming to spell out my Creed for me, I hope he will not mind if I take a look to see if I can really agree with each of its points:
1) “There is no God.” Congrats, Mr. Egnor! You have succeeded in stating the fact that atheists do not believe in God! A promising start!
2) “Nothing caused everything for no reason.” Uh oh. This is gibberish. Nobody, not even atheists can believe this, because it is utter nonsense. It is like saying that Mr. Egnor believes that colorless blue ideas sleep furiously. Somebody might say something like that, but nobody can believe it because it has no coherent content.
Is Mr. Egnor trying to get at something that atheists actually do believe? Atheists, like theists, believe that something is uncaused. Theists say that it is God; atheists, at least the ones that are naturalists, say that the universe (or the multiverse) in its most basic and general features, has no cause. In other words, the basic disagreement between theists and naturalists is over what is the best candidate for an ultimate brute fact—God, or something else. Maybe atheists are claiming something questionable here, but, if so, it needs to be shown by argument, not by dismissive put-downs.
3) “There is no ultimate purpose for anything.” Sure there is. The ultimate purpose of my car is to get me from one place to the other. The ultimate purpose of my university (as I have to remind administrators on occasion) is the discovery and transmission of knowledge. Aristotle argued that the ultimate purpose of human life is to achieve eudaimonia (and I agree). Surely, Mr. Egnor is aware of such instances of purposefulness. What then does he mean?
He means, I guess, that atheists disagree with theists when they claim that the universe was made by God for a purpose. Since we atheists do not believe that the universe was made, we do not believe that it was made for a purpose. What follows? Mr. Egnor thinks that a lot does, so let’s see.
4) “There is no afterlife.” Technically, there is nothing in atheism, per se, that denies the existence of an afterlife. Atheists could believe in souls (some have), and therefore could believe in an afterlife. However, if atheists are also naturalists, then they will not believe in souls, or anything supernatural, and so will not believe in an afterlife.
5) “Human beings are just animals.” Human beings are animals. That is a biological fact. Humans are indeed biological organisms, classified as Homo sapiens in the taxonomic system of binomial nomenclature. Atheists tend to be fact-friendly so, we happily accept this one.
However, Mr. Egnor is not asserting the biological fact that atheists accept—that humans are animals–but that human beings are JUST animals. What belief does he mean to impute to atheists by his word “just?” If he means to imply by that “just” that atheists hold that, lacking souls, humans will have no afterlife, then his claim here would seem to be redundant, having been already stated in his previous claim. What else could he mean by that “just?” If he means that humans—as is allegedly the case with nonhuman animals—are incapable of rationality and morality, then atheists (with the exception of Alex Rosenberg) do not generally accept that, and the imputation is therefore a straw man.
6) “There is no objective morality (follows necessarily from 1, 2, 3, 5).” When someone says that something follows, indeed follows “necessarily,” from certain claims, it is generally preceded by an argument. I find nothing remotely resembling an argument here. The consequence is merely asserted as though it were dead obvious. May I suggest that what seems obvious to Mr. Egnor might, in fact, not be? Since we have no argument but only assertion, I will make a counter-assertion here: Far from stating a necessary consequence, this claim is a gross non sequitur. BTW, I would not be the only one to hold that there can be a secular basis for objective morality. Others that would hold this would include Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and quite a few others.
7) “There is no ultimate accountability (follows necessarily from 1-6).” If by “ultimate accountability,” Mr. Egnor means that atheists do not accept that there will be a final judgment and an assignment to heaven or hell, then he is right. We think that morality is possible without the bribery of heaven or the terrorism of hell. Guilty as charged. However, from the fact that there is no “ultimate” (i.e. postmortem) accountability it does not follow that atheists do not believe in accountability.
8) “There is no free will (follows from 5).” If by “free will” Mr. Egnor means free will in the libertarian sense—where choices are neither determined nor random but are due to an occult power called “agent causation”—then such a view is often derided by atheists as a fantasy of questionable coherence. Indeed, that is my view of it. However, if “free will” can encompass a compatibilist sense, then many atheists (including me) have no problem with it. If something is wrong with the compatibilist view, this has to be argued, not assumed.
9) “There is no guilt or innocence in a moral sense (follows from 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8).” Alas, this another egregious non sequitur where Mr. Egnor permits himself to draw vast conclusions from no argument at all.  The consequence is a malicious caricature of atheism. No, actually, it is not even a caricature, since a caricature bears some similarity to its object. Mr. Egnor’s effusion (It is not an argument) seems merely to function to articulate his private fantasy about what he would like to believe about atheists.
Alas, then, I cannot accept Mr. Egnor’s offer of enlightenment. Instead, let me offer him a modest bit of advice: Maybe read some atheists before you draw vast conclusions about what they “must” believe. Maybe you could start with Erik Wielenberg and Owen Flanagan. It really is more effective to criticize from a position of knowledge than ignorance.